In 1959 Joan Baez was a pint-sized college dropout with a hell of a lot of hair playing her folk tunes in pretty much any Boston club that would have her. Once the sixties came—well, we know the rest—Baez met Bob Dylan, and she quickly became the darling of the nascent protest folk-rock scene. Her soprano reworkings of classic spirituals and folk songs became the soundtrack by which a generation remembers their youth.
Today, the 67 year-old Baez refuses to become a relic. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of her recording career, Baez has released The Day After Tomorrow, a new album of covers drawn from sources such as Elvis Costello and Thea Gilmore. (In true Baez style, the title track is a cover of Tom Waits’ classic wartime ode to a disheartened soldier.)
Two of us MoJo staffers caught Baez during the last leg of her recent national tour. Later, we discussed via gchat how the rebel-rousing folksinger translates from legend to the stage. Full disclosure: Neither of us was even in utero during the sixties.
Jesse: Well, first off, I really enjoyed the show. It was my first time seeing Joan Baez, and I left feeling warm and cuddly, ready to give a stranger a hug.
Alexis: I mean she’s Joan freaking BAEZ.
Jesse: Word. I’ve been hearing about her my whole life. My mother was jealous.
Alexis: So was mine. She offered to fly out to come to the show.
Jesse: My mom didn’t tell me Joan was so religious, or maybe spiritual is a better word.
Alexis: Is she?
Jesse: Well, I can’t be sure, but she kept talking about Jesus and God, and then Gandhi.
Alexis: But I think a lot of that is sort of sixties spiritual jargon, that when coming out of the mouth of a 60-year-old women is completely different than a 17-year-old hippie.
Jesse: Yeah, now it just sounds new-agey.
Alexis: You still have to respect her for coming out with new stuff though.
Jesse: Right. And her voice is still remarkably sweet.
Alexis: It sounds exactly the same. It’s crazy.
Jesse: But, let’s be honest, she’s not a virtuoso. I really think people came more for the culture, to reconnect with a meaningful time in their own lives. I mean, she kept offering little nuggets of insight into her world. She introduced her mom, after all.
Alexis: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash… She can name drop.
Alexis: There was a women sitting next to us just beaming, singing along with every lyric. It’s clear that seeing her is really about so much more than the music. It’s almost like a baby-boomer reunion. There was this collective energy about age. Like the way she kept joking about the time lapse and changing her song lyrics to reflect that it was 40 years in the future. Those jokes got the most laughs. But hearing the same songs sung in a concert hall to adults who might as well be attending a Barry Manilow concert is just incredibly sad. The baby boomers grew up, the revolution never happened, and now Joan Baez sings covers for $50 a pop. And you can buy a Pellegrino in the lobby after you’ve signed your Amnesty International petition.
Jesse: I’ve just got to say that she’s done a much better job of practicing what she’s been preaching and publicizing her beliefs and taking a strong stand for justice than Bob Dylan.
Alexis: She was one of the first celebrities to come out for Obama actively, and she’s still a regular face in the protest scene. Its funny, considering the Joan Didion piece on her where she’s called “the Madonna of the disaffected” and “the pawn of the protest movement.” I mean she still has those qualities, but it’s definitely something she owns and controls and seeks. She’s not 17 anymore.
Jesse: I don’t know if I’d call her a pawn necessarily, but I bet that’s where I’ll get to see her next, at a protest rally. Would you see her again, I mean, outside of a protest rally?
Alexis: I think I would, but only if I brought my mom.
—Alexis Fitts and Jesse Finfrock.