New direction home

Joan Baez looks at past, present and Dylan

If the term "folk music" still means something, then Joan Baez is its most vibrant voice. After four decades of recording, her sweet sound is heard again on her recent live album, Bowery Songs. Now 64 and a new grandma, her place in the spotlight was also brightened by her PBS appearance in September in No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan, with whom Baez had a romantic and artistic collaboration in the early '60s.

Joan Baez always seems like she's having so much fun. I'm assuming that must be part of what sustains you.

Well, it is, now. I didn't have fun for the first 20 years.

How come?

I was too neurotic. I had a lot of phobias and craziness, and none of it showed on stage. When I started renovating the career, 16 or 17 years ago, I also went into the kind of therapy I needed to get to the kernel of things. And I was touring while I was doing this! It was a madhouse for a while, but I came out of the tunnel about eight years after I started. I sound like a born-again when I start talking about it.

No, I understand it. When I was preparing to talk with you, I was inspired to go back to an interview I did with Pete Seeger. He told me, "You may have to live with a certain kind of music for a long time before you get to know it well." Are you better now because you're older?

Not necessarily. I'm thinking back on when I see footage of myself when I was young and innocent, it astonishes me how really pure it was, in spite of all my insanity — or maybe because of it — it was so real, and it was absolute folk.

If it isn't now absolute folk, and maybe shouldn't be, what is it?

Morphed folk, because I realized that after a certain number of years of the ballads and the purity — as other musicians started creeping in on the records, and then there was Nashville — it was no longer pure folk and it was never going to be again. I was a political entity before I was a folksinger.

Is your songlist in Atlanta going to be issue-driven?

Yeah. I'm freer with the Dylan music, because it's beyond relevant, it's mystical-relevant. And there'll be some more in the "Silver Dagger" [ballad] line. I'll also read some poetry, which makes my position on things very, very clear.

In [Steve Earle's] "Christmas in Washington," there's the line, "Come back, Woody Guthrie," and it makes me think about whether the function of a folksinger has changed at all from back when you were first getting known by all of us, with the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. There are radicals who've been complaining that there haven't been enough songs in response to issues.

Old radicals complain about everything. People whine and say, "When is somebody gonna write another 'Blowing in the Wind?'" When I looked at the scene which was evolving after Bush came into office, the deterioration was so rapid, of morality or caring or decency. So what is going to arise from this rubble? And I was not waiting for "Blowing in the Wind." I was just going to kind of leave my mind open for whatever was going to be, and it turned out to be Michael Moore, which in my opinion turned out to be the first identifiable entity you could attach to. And it was awhile between him and Cindy Sheehan, as though he'd cracked that wall of denial that the administration put up so effectively, and then he put a foot through it. And then, oddly enough, the hurricane came and knocked down the rest of the levee.

Did the Dylan documentary let you do anything you hadn't done before?

Oddly enough, it kind of freed me up from any remnants of anger or distress. I realized I'd watched the first two hours and I'd been smiling through the whole thing, like somebody's grandmother. Watching us in our baby fat. Of course we screwed up, we were so young, you know? And then you see those songs come out of this guy, one after another after another. That was the richest thing in that documentary.