Joan Baez: I made a decision not to be a nostalgia act

Joan Baez: I made a decision not to be a nostalgia act
Photo courtesy of the artist

"Ask what you wanna know, not what you think someone else wants to know," says Joan Baez over the phone, her voice laced with years of wry insight. At 72 years old, Baez comes across as decades younger, spry and streetwise but not world-weary -- even for the decades she's seen, living her life out in the eye of what she calls a "perfect storm."

Baez is known to many people for different things, but the two strongest identities she has are for her music and her activism -- both of which go hand in hand. She first gained notoriety in the '60s as a prominent voice of the peace movement, and over the years, she has lent her voice to a multitude of causes -- everything from the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War up through the Iraq War and the Occupy Wall Street movement. She has an extensive catalog that spans over 30 albums, and she's certainly a lot more to look at these days than her former beau Bob Dylan.

Now, this summer, Baez is on tour again. She's set to perform at the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater on Thursday, and Gimme Noise had the opportunity to chat with the legendary artist ahead of her show. Baez isn't short on experience, wisdom, or opinions; read on to discover what she has to say about the state of the world and music today.

Gimme Noise: Tell me about this new tour. What made you decide to go on the road this summer?

Joan Baez: Well, it's inevitable that I just go out still, probably not for that long. It's not "why" so much as "where and when," and now, the easiest route, the better. I don't feel like forging new territory and stuff. [Laughs] I still enjoy singing, and I love the bus. I love my traveling family.

You're an activist, and you've seen this country and world change so much over the years, and you've absorbed it all through your own unique lens. Do you see any similarities in the cultural and political climate of the '60s and '70s versus today?

It's important to acknowledge that there's never gonna be another ten-year span like the one I was lucky enough to be born into -- the willingness to take risks, the activism, the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam. It was an oddly perfect storm, and it affected us all. At the same time, there was this enormous surge of talent, with the Dylans and the Lennons and their capacity to write songs, and what happened musically. The counter-culture became culture. It went from underground songs to the public screen and radio, and that was a time period that won't be repeated.

Our process now for the people is to realize that, and see what there is now. It may not crack up. Musically, for me, I haven't heard anything as moving and as powerful as anything that came out of that time period -- and it's not just about the music. I am surprised, a lot of the time, about the young people, because they don't have a very good legacy about us -- when it came to the Reagan years, when everything came to a halt and started going backwards. There's still a fight for consciousness against greed; to try and do something good that you're moved to do in a world like this one is very difficult.

My motto is: "Little victories and big defeats." It's a very grim thing that we're walking into -- this beautiful life and beautiful world threatened with extinction, really. Not the earth -- the earth will remain -- but what we've done to ourselves as a race and the animal world. We're teetering, and I think people need to find what they're capable of and go and do it, and revive some passion and caring, and make the world as good a place as you can make it be.

[Pause] ....Well, that was a hell of answer, wasn't it? [Laughs]

In Minnesota, we've [just passed] a bill recognizing gay marriage.

Yeah, that was a struggle for you guys, wasn't it? Minnesota took a long time.

Sometimes it seems that we have advanced so little in our viewpoints over the last fifty years. Can you put this in perspective for me?

[Laughs] Well, I think the expression "learn from experience" is bologna, because we're putting our own personal needs in front of anything that might need to be learned. You'd think that after World War II and the Vietnam War... I think we were just born with a bad gene. I think in relation to that -- in our addiction to war and violence -- I think human nature is made up of both the good and the bad, and I think the point is to have a willingness to be open to change and to love. What did Gandhi say? About how easy it is to react rather than think. The question is, which one are you going to organize? And unfortunately, it is easier to organize violence than human decency.

At the same time, there are things that are sort of shockingly happening. I mean, a black president, for better or worse -- or however more conservative he is than I thought he would be... the liberal plan to basically take over is in some ways in progress. But the little victories are very hard in the party political system, and for me, I've never been able to work in that context or have much faith in it.


When I watch videos from that time in the '60s and '70s -- when you sang "Oh Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome" -- I feel like I'm seeing the spirit of that era. I feel like music played such an important role in helping to define that time and give a voice to certain viewpoints. Do you feel like today's music does that?

I think that we reflect what's around us, and I think that today's music reflects the confusion of the artists now. And I hate to say it, but it's also a lack of talent. There's a hundred well-meaning, relevant songs, and they're just not worth listening to, and you've got to face it. And then if they are worth listening to, where does one go with them? Fox News?

Oh, my God.

"Oh, my God" is right! [Laughs] There are people who you would talk to that are much less gloomy than I am, and they're keeping the spirit alive, but I'm home painting.

I want to ask you about one particular song in your catalog, "We Shall Overcome." It's the one song, I think, that will always be relevant, that is somehow universal. I've read that you don't like to perform that one much anymore.

It's too serious a song to be put in the "nostalgia forever" category. I made a decision not to be a nostalgia act years ago. It's probably more profitable to be what people expect of me, but then I really wouldn't be happy. In a way, I think "We Shall Overcome" is too precious to waste on people to quote "fight the fight." I do it once in a while, if people have something going on in a town or if I'm in countries where people are in strife. I think your perception of it is pretty clear. It's the kind of song that people would like to write, and only about one or two of [these kinds of songs are] managed a century. It's another kind of perfect storm.

If you could tell one thing to young people making music today, what would it be?

Let me think... [Pause] For me, what made it all worthwhile was, first of all, when I started playing the guitar. I started playing nonstop, and I would go to sleep with a guitar on my chest and wake up the next morning and start playing it, so it's a devotion to music. The richness in my life came from my music being a part of the broader picture for me, which was giving a voice to the people who couldn't speak for themselves, so that's where my motivation came from.

If they're not interested in that, then just take the music. I think back to this time I was in a snowstorm in Germany, and the car radio was playing a quartet -- Beethoven, I think. I looked out the window and it was snowing, and it was so beautiful. I thought, "Who needs politics?" I thought, "Shit. This is enough: to be born, with this snowstorm and this quartet." It doesn't have to be about politics, it just has to touch souls.

Joan Baez will be performing at the Weesner MN Zoo Amphitheater in Apple Valley on June 6. $47. Doors at 7 p.m. All ages. More info here.

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