Since the late 1950s, Joan Baez’s stunning voice has channeled a lifetime of righteousness and tradition. From her early days singing old-school folk numbers through her socially conscious songs of the ‘60s and her country leanings in the ‘70s, the one-time Dylan cohort is a beacon from a time when artists really could change the world. Tonight (Fri., July 30), Baez performs the songs that made her famous and some newer ones as well, proving that after 50 years, she’s still going strong. $36.50. 8 p.m. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. 404-876-5859.
Chad Radford: From the beginning you’ve done a good job of taking other people’s songs and making them your own, and you’ve also stayed current with the material that you sing. Are there other contemporary song writers that you like listening to either at home or on-stage?
Joan Baez: Not very conscientiously. I don’t spend much time trying to find other songwriters. When the time comes to make another album, I’ll keep an ear out, but I usually do it through other people. When I’m at home I listen to opera, which is kind of ironic…
When I started singing there was just a massive pool of songs out there. They were folk songs and they were ballads and that’s how I entered it. I didn’t have to search for anything because it was just there, right there in Harvard Square and in New York. There weren’t any contemporary folk singers at the time — it probably started with Tim Hardin in New York City and that’s when other people started to write, and that's when I started copping the songs. Really, I didn’t start writing for 10 years after I started, and of course the master was Dylan. I had access to his material but I never went out looking for it. Now I have to sing other people’s music because I haven’t been writing for the last 15 or 20 years.
I’ll hear people say ‘recently you’ve been playing a lot of other people’s songs…’ Like it’s a new trend! Kind of like how I cut my hair [laughs]. People still say that, too. ‘Oh look, you cut your hair!’ Yoohoo…
Do you still think of yourself as a folk singer?
Some places in the world call it country and western, because they don’t know what else to call it. They don’t have folk music there. France doesn’t really have folk music. These days I guess I would call it contemporary folk, because it is contemporary. Also folk music is kind of antiquated, but it doesn’t bother me because there isn’t really anything else that describes it?
Sometimes people gripe at me when I refer to something as being folkish.
What else would they have you call it?
Well, this is a stretch, but for example, if I refer to something as black metal, some body on the internet is going to have a panic attack because what I'm writing about is actually death metal, not black metal. ...because there’s a big difference. With the word folk people will complain that something is more singer-songwriter fare, or indie, lo-fi, country or something like that. There are many examples.
Right, I know what you mean and I've heard that sort of thing too. I guess you can call me what ever you want, but you can’t call me indie because I’m too fucking old!
But you are on Razor & Tie, and that’s pretty much an indie, right?
Yeah, I guess so. You can make me indie if you would like. It will make me feel younger.
I'll see what I can do.
Do songs ever catch you off guard?
Well, I think that songs choose me, and that’s not just something that’s cute to say. I think they really do and I’m not sure why. But I have to trust that feeling. A lot of times when people come to me and say ‘you have to hear this song, because I think you will really love it.' There’s about a 10% chance that they’re right. Because it has to ring true for me and there’s not necessarily any reason that someone else might think it’s right.
People who know me, like my assistant, played a song for me and it was “Day After Tomorrow,” and she was right, I loved it. Other people come close, but there’s usually no cigar. She heard “Day After Tomorrow” and called me up and she was right! I need her! That song is perfect.
Coming form the tradition of the New York folk scene, there has always been a strong political element to your work, but you’ve done a good job of avoiding party politics.
Overstatements don’t make songs. I think it’s the understatement and that’s really hard to do. If you try to write a political song with a hook it’s just ghastly. People try to do it. I probably get 100 songs a year, and maybe 1 of them has potential. That's hard to deal with too, because people have really good hearts and they might even have good politics but the songs are awful.
Ain’t that always the way?
Yeah. It’s too bad because we need them very badly right now.
Right. Well, you came out fully in support of Barack Obama during the last election. The choice in candidate doesn't seem like a stretch, but your very public show of support was kind of unexpected.
I don’t regret that but I am disappointed with him at the moment. I give him a C- right now.
That’s a harsh reality right now.
Yes it is, and it’s surprising. But I gave myself a little out when I endorsed him because I said, ‘he’ll do things that I don’t approve of…’ that was me understanding that he would meet with the military, but I didn’t think it would be every morning. I still think that he should be meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winners once a month. These aren’t guys who just prayed a lot, these are guys who changed the course of history. Seriously. Obama is choosing the wrong people to work with him.
Right, but by taking office after George W. Bush he walked into a huge mess.
That’s true, but I still don’t get it. Afghanistan just makes no sense to me or anyone else that I talk to.
Me neither. The only way it makes sense is if we’re not being told the whole story.
That's the whole transparency thing. We’re never told anything. C-.
I read a quote from you at some point where you compared Obama to Martin Luther King Jr.
Yeah, the only qualm that I had when I endorsed him was that if he had been really smart like King, he would have started a movement instead of run for office. He could have done it, too. Of course in the end Martin ran another course, and Ghandi got shot... In the meantime people will say 'ha ha look at what happened to him!' Well, look at what happened to Christ. And really, look at what three of these people did with their lives. Obama could have done marvelous things with his life and ours.
I remember when Carter wrote his first book he said that when he got elected he had all of these wonderful ideas but as soon as he walked into the office his hands were tied.
That's how the job works... Tell me about what you have in store with your show at the Botanical Garden.
Well, we have a skeleton format that we follow and switch songs when we feel like it. There are four musicians with me at the moment, and this tour will be a little different in that I’ll take over more on my own. They’re not going to like it but I’ll whittle things down. Some of the things I’ve been doing with them I’ll do on my own… Because I can [laughs]! ...and I feel like it. It will be a little bit softer, but we just work out a map. There’s 50 years to cover so we just try to do it intelligently.
Man... 5o years means a lot of experience.
Yeah, it is a lot of experience, and my voice has changed a lot — it takes a lot to keep it working smoothly.
I went on Youtube and watched 2 different versions of you singing the song "Forever Young." One was recorded in the ’60s or ‘70s — there was no date on it, but it's black and white, and looks like it was recorded circa Don't Look Back. Then another version came up that was recorded live in 2007. Watching them back-to-back really underscored how much your voice and presence have changed. There was a frailty to the older video, and with the new one your voice just has a boom to it.
I think it’s a combination of things. With the early video I probably hadn't started vocal training yet. In the beginning I didn’t understand vocal training. Fortunately I didn’t need it, and I wouldn’t have wanted it back then. But when I did start — because I had to — I didn’t know anything and it made it harder to train. Everything I did back then was anti-instinctual. It still is because I did 20 years of singing where almost everything I did was the opposite of what I would have to learn, and that’s still in play a little bit. But the earlier stuff was really just like free falling. Now, gravity literally takes over the vocal chords like it does with all of our muscles. It’s a constant fight to keep the vocal chords working. They do what all of our muscles do, they start collapsing so there’s a lot of work to keep the notes going up.
The richer sound just comes form a life’s experience. I couldn’t possibly sing those high notes, as in earlier, and I could never have sung what a life’s experience does to both a singing voice and your whole life.
Have you been to Atlanta’s Botanical Gardens before?
Yes, I love it there.
Lot of flowers…
Yes, a lot of flowers, and a Lot of birds.
(Photo by Dana Tynan)
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