Joan Baez
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 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
MK: Where do you feel most at home in the world so that you can listen to your still small voice ?

JB: Right now I'm in Amsterdam, so I think there are tricks to it. I do a lot of meditation, but when I wake up in the morning and it's quiet—that could be anywhere. I'm not necessarily searching for anything, but I think it's a good habit to shut up once in a while. As often as possible actually, because I think it's the noisiest decade in the history of the world. So if I can get someplace where I can just be quiet, that's probably a very good thing.

MK: Does music have the power to transform the world?

JB: I think music has the power to transform people, and in doing so, it has the power to transform situations—some large and some small. I guess I don't like the expression "change the world" because it's just too massive a job to take on and it may lead to some kind of discouragement. Having really high expectations can be dangerous because it leads to feelings of exhaustion and frustration. I think it's important to not expect too much of yourself, or of the movement, or of the march. Be realistic about what the possibilities are to come out of each step.

MK: We live in a culture where there are so many expectations that come with no work.

JB: You're absolutely right. And with no risk. People wait for change. They'll say: "When is somebody going to write another 'Imagine'? When is somebody going to write another song, do another march?" First of all, that's not going to happen. It's not going to be what was; it's going to be whatever is created now. If we really want change, the factor that has to be in there that's been missing for so many years is risk. Most people have been unwilling to take a risk. We have to come back to an era of risk-taking, which has just become uncomfortable for people because it's not comfortable to take risks. But I think that we're going to need to do that.

MK: It was definitely clear from the documentary that you were not afraid to take a risk.

JB: There were some times when I felt afraid. But when I determined that it was the absolute right thing to do, I knew there would be moments when I was afraid, but when my decision was made, it was made.

Answering the call of family
MK: Your mom was very supportive and even protested the draft with you. How important has that relationship been in your life?

JB: She went to jail with me for protesting the draft! She's 96 years old now, and my relationship with her is very important. The calling at the moment is to spend time with her and with my family. I am learning from her how to get old. Our society is very confused about how to deal with getting older.

I spend a lot of time with Buddhists . I'm not a Buddhist, but their relationship with death interests me. My mom says she's not afraid of death, which is a very good way to go into it. Her view is supported by my Buddhist friends, so I want to learn about it. I want to know ahead of time how to deal with it when my mom goes, because I am very close to her. I don't think it has to be hideous. I think it will be sad and there will be grieving, but there will also be something wonderful that will come from it. There will be some way that I can grieve my mom that will bring in the glory of her life.

MK: Is there someone you'd like to shine a light on that you think every woman should know?

JB: Heaps of them! The women around the world who keep things together. The women in the Third World who do almost all the work—they raise the children, they work in the fields, they do the singing—and they make their villages work.

MK: What do you know for sure?

JB: That when I dance on the tour bus with my son—that is true joy.

The soundtrack and DVD for American Masters documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound are available for purchase.


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