I don't make history - I am history, says singer Joan Baez

Singer Joan Baez considers a life beyond making and performing music

Singer Joan Baez's eight-month world tour that kicked off in Sweden this month will mark her farewell to the road.
Singer Joan Baez's eight-month world tour that kicked off in Sweden this month will mark her farewell to the road.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • She has not released a new album since 2008, but Joan Baez has not been silent.

Taylor Swift brought her on stage, while Lana Del Rey said her most recent album, Lust For Life, had "early Baez influences".

Her 1970 version of The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Baez's only Top 10 single) was recently featured in the film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

However, just as the folk-music icon and pioneering activist has mined a fresh lode of cultural resonance, she has decided to step back.

She announced that her new album, Whistle Down The Wind, would be her final recording and that an eight-month world tour that kicked off in Sweden this month will mark her farewell to the road.

"It's a big decision, but it feels so right," she said, seated in the rustic kitchen of a house she has lived in for 50 years, just a few minutes' drive from Stanford University.

"People who know me get that it's time. When my mum (who died in 2013 at 100) was 95, I said: 'I think I'm going to quit.' She said: 'Oh, but honey, what will your fans think?'

"About three years later, I said: 'I think I'm going to quit' - and she said: 'Oh, honey, you've done enough.'"

Changes in the 77-year-old's vocal range are what mostly led to her decision to retire.

"I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop and he said: 'Your voice will tell you.'

"And it has - it's a muscle and you have to work harder and harder to make it work," she said.

She started seeing a vocal therapist six years ago, which led to "an easing up and finding more pleasure in singing".

Whistle Down The Wind producer Joe Henry said Baez has adjusted to the new limitations on her voice. "She arrived very well aware of what she believed she could do with the instrument she now has," he added.

"I was aware of her feeling out the colours she had on her palette, but the loss of that range has done nothing to diminish her emotional power as a storyteller."

Baez wanted the album - on which she interprets songs by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others - to be a "bookend" for a recording career that started with her 1960 self-titled debut, which has been added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

It was more important to her to have Whistle Down The Wind speak to the present moment than make any kind of final statement.

"What was more conscious was trying to make an album that was, in some musical way, trying to make some beauty in the face of - well, of evil, really," she said. "But not blatant or I couldn't do it.

"Two songs I had to let go were too topical and I wanted this to have a more lasting feeling."

However, Baez expressed hope in the energy she saw at the women's marches and in the number of women who have decided to run for office. "I was pleased that they weren't just actions, then everything died down," she said.

"The fear was 'Yahoo, a million women' and then everybody goes home, but I don't think that's what's happening."

In January, Baez went to the California State Capitol to help commemorate a 1948 Los Gatos Canyon plane crash that killed 32 people, including 28 Mexicans whose names went unreported.

She sang Woody Guthrie's Deportee, which told the story of the tragedy to the descendants of those who perished. She said she will never stop participating in that kind of action.

"It's not big, but I don't think we can think in big terms now or we'll just get under the covers and never get out," she said.

"The little stuff almost becomes more important right now because you have a chance at it. The world we are living in is being made horrible and is going to need every little victory - that your family and friends feel some kind of support, some kind of goodness."

"When I go on stage, I don't make history. I am history," she added. "Perhaps it's enough for me to be up there reminding people of a time when we had the music, the cause, the direction and one another.

"My foundation in non-violent political action was set before I started singing and both are second nature to me.

"So, I do not preclude the possibility of civil disobedience and even going to jail. Someone will have to. Then again, perhaps there is virtue to having carried the flame and grace now in passing the torch."

As she considers a life beyond making and performing music, Baez expressed the greatest enthusiasm for pursuing painting, an activity she took up in the last decade.

Last year, she had her first solo exhibition in Mill Valley, California.

Her house is filled with her canvases and a backyard studio is crammed with portraits of her family members and figures ranging from boxer Muhammad Ali to musician Richard Thompson.

She also talked about travelling to see art after the touring stops.

"That's something I wouldn't have dreamt of doing because I was always working," she said.

"And I'll sit and shut up for a while. Which is important and it's the hardest thing to do."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline ''I don't make history, I am history''. Subscribe