An interview with Joan Baez

INT: Perhaps we could just begin with a fairly general question. You mentioned the gift that you were born with. You could have really applied that in any area of music, but you chose folk. Perhaps you could tell us why folk music. What was it that attracted you about folk?

JB: I suppose, um, that I was a highly neurotic teenager and feeling very lonesome. I mean, those balladsccI went directly from rhythm and blues, which is kind of a cruder form of the ballad, in a sense, of unrequited love, to a more refined form of uh, sad love ballads. I just was absolutely me when I discovered Harvard Square and ballad after ballad of uh, sadness and beauty. And I was at home there. And I had, I mean, since, my idea of the future was the following Tuesday. You know, I had no plans. I just sat down with my guitar for four years and played ballads. And, um, it wasccand then and I with the voice was the right person at the right time. Because the voice was absolutely, totally suited to the ballad and to folk music.

INT: What was the kind of atmosphere in those folk clubs like in that stage? Can you describe the audiences and who was coming to see you?

JB: Well, they're probably difccslightly difficult kinds. A more obscure folk club would be the absolute rigid folk fans, you know. We all wore madras dresses and [laughs] looked a little too grim for words. And um, justccyou know, there were sometimes it would be absolutely deathly still, quiet. And I can remember actually my audience responding to that and I was unaware of it. But they were getting the giggles, you know, the kind of giggles you get in church and you just can't stop. Just because it's too tense. You know, you want to get out of there. [Laughs] I thought, "Why are these people giggling?" I had sung one long drawn out sad love ballad after another for about 45 minutes in a row. And the pressure was too awful. And I wouldn't let people talk while I sang. I mean, I was to stop dead in the middle of a song, so that was one atmosphere that could be created. And I wasn't the only person who did that.

INT: Okay, just one final question about the Village, bearing in mind what you've qualified about it. I got the sense from your own autobiography, actually, that people involved in that scene thought it wasn't just about Greenwich Village. It was the whole folk scene. Maybe slightly aware of their own mythcmaking. Do you think that was true?

JB: I don't know how, how aware one can be of a legend in process, you know. Uh, we were certainly very young. And I certainly was clueless, you know, absolutely. Which is probably better, you know. I mean, I had my quirks but they didn't have to do with thinking I was um, a big shot. You know, I just didn't have a clue. And as to whether or not it was going to go on forever, it, at that age you don't think. I mean, I, I wasn't that unique in, in my concept of the future being the next week. You know, you just kind of uh, tumble around and learn the songs and, and probably not if you're in it for, as a commercial venture. And you, you're plottingccyou're plotting and planning a, a career. That was [laughs] not one of my, either a good point or a bad point. It, it just didn't exist for me. [Background sounds] And I think it was a little bit endemic of, of some of us, anyway, in the folk scene. That the music wasccwe did music.

JB: Yeah. Um, after 1962 I went into the South, was this irate little clause in the contract saying the audiences had to be integrated, which is very funny, because the blacks didn't know me from a hole in the ground. So we had to call up NAACP to get blacks to come and integrate the audience. And they had to be very brave to do that, by the way. So I finally got my head on straight. In 1963 I went down and sang at black colleges. And why I'm going through this whole thing is what I remember was ending the programs at these black schools and whites had come onto the campus for the first time in the history of the campus. And everybody was scared. Everybody was terrified. And uh, we would sing "We Shall Overcome." And people would stand up and they'll still come and tell me the stories of when they were there in that integrated hall for the first time in their lives. And kids who had come from um, one was the child of one of the local sheriffs, who came there and recognized another person her age, but they wouldn't say anything to each other. Because they couldn't recognize that they had been there, because it was very, very dangerous and their parents would just have' had a fit, you know, to put it mildly. So that song, I mean, my God, I won't sing it now unless it's um, I'll sing it in Sarajevo. I'll sing it in eastern Germany, but I won't sing it as a piece of nostalgia. [Background sounds] Because there's no point in singing it in New Haven. You know, or Burlington or Nantucket. You know, it, it deserves more than that. But, but if I'm in a place that has really either recently gone through its own enormous struggle or is in the process. When I was in Sarajevo that song made absolute sense. And it, it came out of, you know, it came out of the depths of the very beginnings and the roots of a movement.

INT: What do you think songs like that were doing, "Blowing in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome?" Were they reflecting? Were they uniting? Were they helping to change?

JB: They were doing allccI think they were doing all of, they were doing all of those things. They were helping to change and they were, they were clearly reflecting. And they couldn't have been written without that, the reflection to bounce off of. Um, when people ask why songs like um, "Blowing in the Wind" or "Imagine" aren't being written in 1985 or 1990, you can't expect them to because in a sense the world has been living in, our Western world has been living in a political vacuum. After the war in Vietnam ended. It really was an implosion of some kind. And, uh, it's impossible, in my opinion, to write those songs out of nothing.

INT: Okay. That's good. Could you tell us about when you first saw Bob Dylan? Which I think was at [Gurdy's].

JB: Um, I've been told that I absolutely had to hear this guy. He was just fantastic and um, that's all I'd heard. So I was prepared, I was prepared to see somebody who wasn't going to live up to everything I'd heard. And that's not what I saw. He was clearly, he was clearly a jewel of some kind. And un, I think he and I were both embarrassed because people had obviously spoken to each about the other, and um, each of us was with somebody else and sort of feeling slightly uncomfortable. I was with my alleged boyfriend and uh, and was so dazzled by Bob and his squeaky little voice and his brilliant songs, I was just dazzled. This little, you know, he had his baby fat and he was wearing some old raggedy shirt. And um, you know, one knows when it's really a gift. [Unclear] was really gifted.

INT: A lot has been written about him as a writer. You were probably at that point almost certainly more a more accomplished performer than he was, I would imagine. How did you judge him as a performer? As a singer?

JB: Yeah, I always liked Bob's singing. I always liked his, his squeaky voice. I mean, there's some people who just didn't take to it as a voice and so they ignored everything else he had to say and do. But I actually enjoyed um, the sound of the voice with the guitar. It, it was something um, it was a root. It was rooty and it was a root.

INT: Now you were actually in [unclear] film, the 1965 tour of Britain. Looking at it now it all looks like a kind of mad circus.

JB: Oh, it was.

INT: Could you tell us about how that tour felt?

JB: Well, I shouldn't have been there. It was, it was hellacious for me. But I didn't have, you know, you can't extract yourself from those situations. That's where it's happening and that's where you think you're supposed to be. And I really should have gotten the hell home. Um, everybody was doing all sorts of drugs. And, and I was on the, the outside of that and then I couldn't get it through my head that this was Bob's tour and he was not going to invite me to sing with him. Because my relationship with him had been that I would invite him on the stage. Well, that's me. You know, that's not Bob necessarily at all. And I didn't understand that. So I was hurt all the time and I looked it and I felt it and it was absolutely disgusting. His, his friends said, "You know, why don't you go home?" But I couldn't. So um, for him it was an extraordinary tour. I mean, for him it was really Europe's first time at seeing what this kid could do.

INT: Do you think then, though, that perhaps he had got a bit trapped by his own image? I mean, he was performing songs at that point that to' some degree he kind of left behind. And he was thinking of doing other things, yet he was still being a folk Woody Guthrie figure.

JB: If you look at Bob's history, and first of all, I'll just say one thing. I, I pride myself on being pretty clever about figuring people out, you know, people I know in my life and people I barely even have just met. I think I'm really clever. I've never claimed to understand Bob. There are a few people like that I, I don't understand anything about why they do what they do. But I can watch the behavior and from what I've seen he's always on to the next thing beforeccand just as people are beginning to catch up with what he just did. He's on to the next thing. It's as though it's a compulsion and, in a sense, it serves him. And it serves his art. And I admire it, in a sense, because it's almost the opposite of what I do. I'm so carefully crafting and perfecting what it is I'm about to present to the public, and I want to please them and I want it to be right. It's like the opposite of somebody. Bob turned his back on the audience and played a harmonica and [laughs] who cares? I mean, he, he doesn't care. So, but his leaping ahead, he just always, alwayscche's genuinely on to something else by the time the press gets there.

INT: Now you, I said this all very firmly, since I'm a [unclear] I do not want to go, I don't want to be made [unclear]ccyou want to make me [start] and do it my way. Did you ever look at what was happening to Dylan at that point and think, yeah, I made the right decision because I don't want all these people clamoring around me.

JB: It wasn't Bob so much as really the, the fact that Grossman had Peter, Paul and Mary. And to me, in my very naive state, they epitomized commerciality of, of folk songs. Even though I liked some of it to listen to. But I wasn't going to get near that. And also, I mean, Grossman, Grossman had some very good points. He was a generous man. I mean, you come and stay at his house, you could stay forever. He was a generous man. But he was not somebody you would want to, I would want to have trusted with my life. Um, maybe it was fear. Maybe it was the fear of being engulfed by commerciality and I wouldn't be able to handle it. I didn't, I wasn't aware of that, but as I look back I think my antenna were out for what could destroy me. And I knew that stuff that I considered to be bad, you know, the desire for money, the need to ride around in limousines, all of that I considered bad. And, and, uh, of course I could have signed on with somebody and said no to those things but I think I was afraid I would somehow be seduced into all the worse aspects of show business. So I stayed away from Albert Grossman. I don't regret that decision.

INT: Is there a certain kind of contradiction within the folk movement of that period? Whereby you had folk purists, if you like, and people who took folk and then moved, pulled into a different arena. That interests me because, you know, folk in one hand, in your tradition, is libertarian, to say the least.

JB: Hmm, I'm not sure about that because thenccfor instance, one way to deal with your [unclear] would be to say that, in a sense, I stopped singing folk songs in the first 10 years. My repertoire was more other things than it was folk songs. And then if you ant to stretch it all the way, a folk song is something somebody creates, that's a folk. Right? I mean, Dylan's a folkccthis is what he is doing, so that's folk song. But then obviously and clearly there was some kind of switch to track and it became more rock & roll than folk music. So I don't feel as though I'm even qualified to say, you know, what is the title? What titles are we putting on what? Myself it's the same thing. Hmm, I haven't sung actually this show now and what I'm doing now hmm, at 37 years into my career, is more like the early days than anything I've done in the last 15 years. And that's because I've come full circle and full circle I don't know how many times, and looking for my own comfort zone. And I'm finding it. It's, it's not, I mean I suppose it's not that curious a thing. I'm finding as where I really bonded with music in the first place. And all these trips in between I've still been called a folk singer or contemporary folk singer. Which is perfectly legitimate although a lot of that music wouldn't qualify to Jean Ritchie and Jean Redpath and Pete Seeger and, and the Green Briar Boys, as folk music.

INT: I just have a couple more questions. ...was, do you feel there was a kind of, if you like, a reactionary body of people involved in the running of the Newport Folk Festival? Or in and around the Newport Folk Festival, that resisted the changes that were starting to be shown by performances like Dylan's electric performance?

JB: The first thing that comes to my mind is people's resistance to change, period. And the next is how they must have defined their, their folk festival. That it really was down home folk. And so when Dylan broke out of that and, and went the distance, you know, in 1960, whatever it was, I think two things: one was their image of him was all shattered because he was their darling, and, you know, he was singing their folk songs with his little guitar and he was their little Woody Guthrie. And that got shattered to bits. And the other is just, well, people resist change, period. Also, you know, traditionally that had been a jazz festival. And jazz has its own root, you know, in some ways, I suppose, it could be a similar thing. Suddenly there was fusion and everybody would freak out in the audience because it wasn't what their idea of what jazz had been. So it sounds to me just like a change too radical, too fast and all of us wouldcbe broadminded, thinking people couldn't deal with it. [Laughs] Something like that.

INT: Okay. I'd like just to ask a summing up question, actually, you know. What do you think the legacy of the folk movement of the 60s really, the period we've been largely talking aboutccwhat do you think the legacy was in two ways: one, for social change in terms of musical history.

JB: Hmm hmm. Um, the first thing that comes to my mind when you ask about the legacy of the folk music boom of the 60s, is that fair enough to say? Is the Indigo Girls leaning into the rainccI'm [unclear] get weepy, but anyway, Newport this year, `95 singing "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." After having done 21 benefit concerts for American Indians. And I'll tell you, my heart just about exploded. Because it wasn't justccI mean there's been a lot of spirituality, whatever that means. And it can get very flaky in this country. Attraction to um, African spirituality, American Indian spirituality, but they bloody well went out and did the benefits for the American Indians and went on to the reservations and met the Indians, and to me that begins, again, to, um, make something real out ofccI made a film once called "Musical Alone Is Not Enough." And um [background noises] it was about singing in Latin America and South America and being banned all over the place. And how I wouldn't want to be a part of social change without music. On the other hand, the music isolated and by itself with a lot of good thoughts isn't going to be enough to move anything. But to see um, and, and hundreds of singers, smaller name folk singers are actively involved in um, daily social change. But to have the Indigo Girls do it brings it to another level for all of their fans to see that these women are, are going to actually be, to some degree or another, involved.

INT: Musically, how important do you think the folk was?

JB: Let's see. Probably for its beauty and for some kind of traditional sense and some sense of, for me, musical order. I have a terrible time with any music that doesn't resolve at the end of the phrase [laughs] you know, I just have a terrible time with it. Whether it's classical or, or pop. But it brought beauty and it brought some kind ofccbecause, because of the way it, it came together with it came together with the social change of the 60s and the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. It, the words were very, very important. And I think, at least, from that the contemporary folk music that was written, those words and I, I think we have to thank probably Bob the most of anybody. But then there are lots of writers and the Tim Hardens and the Phil Oakes and the Joni Mitchells, who summed up a very important part of the world's history in words and beautiful music.

JB: You know, and the beginning we were all young, you know, and all that shit hit the fan and we're just babies. You know, Dylan had his baby fat when he went there in 1965. So did I. [Laughs]