Joan Baez’s pockets of sanity

Folk legend finds consciousness and compassion through music

Ever since Joan Baez, alongside Bill Wood and Ted Alevizos, emerged from a friend’s basement with the 1959 LP Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square, she has released countless albums. She has recorded songs in Spanish, and many other languages, served as an indelible voice for the Civil Rights era, and brought issues such as mass incarceration and inequality to the masses. Baez hasn’t unveiled any new, original songs in many years. These days, she channels her thoughts with a paintbrush and canvas. “One day the songwriting stopped flowing. If it didn’t pop up naturally, I didn’t want to do it,” Baez says. “It’s kind of the same with painting, it just comes. But I suspect the painting is going to stay.”

The project she’s talking about revolves around portraits — a series depicting people she knows who have made a difference in the world through nonviolent means.

“I will make an album,” Baez says.

But at 75 years old, it’s difficult to say when that will happen, and she’s inclined to taking her time and letting it happen naturally. “I need to find the songs,” she says. “I found a couple by Richard Thompson, I found a couple by Tom Waits. I just have to keep researching and finding stuff that fits me.”

Baez found massive success by reinterpreting songs written by other artists. Her iconic performances of the Band’s “The Night That Drove Old Dixie Down” and the traditional folk ballad made famous by Pete Seeger, “We Shall Overcome,” define her repertoire. And her reverence for other artists’ work extends beyond her predecessors and peers. Baez has also championed artists early in their careers, playing songs by the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, and others. Doing so offered a foothold to younger artists in a climate that no longer offers the abundant opportunities rising folk musicians experienced in the 1960s and ’70s. “It was like an overflow of talent. Huge talent. It crossed over from being counter-culture to being a culture. You’d turn the radio on and you’d hear folk music,” Baez says. “There are people who long to have that repeated. It’s not going to be repeated. But it’s going to be replaced by something.”

It’s easy to see how Baez’s message could usher in a fresh movement of consciousness and compassion through music. Inclusiveness beyond music, touching on subjects including racial integration in the ’60s, the Vietnam War, and the death penalty, she has consistently fought for human rights.

Her message of peace and equality has remained consistent, even when her medium hasn’t. “I’m happiest when it’s a combination of social action and music,” Baez says. “It doesn’t mean the songs have to be protest songs, but you have to say something. Make yourself clear. At the moment, that’s very simple.”

Lately, that directive takes shape in pointing out the “real greed and nastiness” of the United States’ presidential frontrunners. But for Baez, the big picture doesn’t take root in party politics. Recently, she’s rekindled her decades-long relationship with Amnesty International to focus on the issue of mass incarceration. Her performances are meant to spark ideas as much as action. “I call them pockets of sanity,” she says. “We’re trying to remain stable and come up with things for people to do to re-introduce compassion and thoughtfulness; taking risks and making sacrifices, because otherwise we won’t be able to sustain a decent society.”

Baez is performing and fighting alongside a new crop of voices, empowering change by encouraging her audiences and peers to point out the injustices they see happening around them. Her actions speak louder than her words, and by empowering the next generation, Baez continues illustrating and underscoring those who’ve made the world a better place.