Photo: Dana Tynan
Her uniquely beautiful soprano voice has long heralded Joan Baez as the reigning queen of folk for fifty years. Her lifelong commitment to speaking out for nonviolence and civil rights has taken her to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the war-torn streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia. In the first comprehensive film to chronicle her private life and public career, American Masters documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, it's clear why she believes social justice is "the true core of life looming larger than music." She talks to Oprah.com about taking risks, listening to her inner voice and being realistic.
Marlene Kelly: Do you feel you were called to a life of activism? What compelled you to follow your passions?
Joan Baez: Well, it's a good way to put it. I certainly didn't think about it back then. There wasn't any question about it for me; I just did what came naturally. I wouldn't have chosen anything else. I was lucky that it seemed to be laid out to me very clearly, very early. The first turning point was reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 10 years old. I remember already being on the path when I was 16 years old and I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Those moments really jettisoned me toward what I ended up doing.
MK: You marched for civil rights and sang at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. How did meeting him influence your life?
JB: The first time I met him, he was the speaker at a high school conference. He was 29 years old and working in Birmingham, Alabama. When he spoke or when he put his words into action, it was so moving to me. Like Gandhi, he would just kind of sit and wait for that still small voice within to guide him. I had learned from my Quaker upbringing to wait and listen for what to do, and that's what I did. It's not because of what somebody else tells me. It's not because I think about it and figure it out; it's because I get very quiet and somehow or other there's a directive that comes to me, and that's how I know what the next step will be.
Where she goes to hear the still small voice inside