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Music Preview: Joan Baez says hard times are over

Friday, March 08, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Before Bobby Zimmerman left his college rock band to become Bob Dylan, Joan Baez was already the golden girl of Greenwich Village's burgeoning folk scene. Before they became an item and he got all the credit for dragging rock out of its infancy, she was already experimenting with poppy rhythms. Before the peace movement, the ERA and the era of the singer-songwriter, Baez had already been there and had done that, and was surprised to turn and find entire movements following her.

Joan Baez: "I am a real nature girl. I love sleeping in the snow and stuff like that."

Four decades into her career, Baez is still an accidental leader, introducing concert audiences to a new crop of songwriters. She's recording a new album, reissuing classics from her early catalog including previously unreleased music, and speaking freely about then and now and what's to come.

You sound tired.

I just got back from the gym and my voice is croaky.

I have heard your voice described in many ways ...

Croaky? [Laughs.]

... but never quite like that. I was sorry to hear about your sister [Mimi] dying last year. There's a rock 'n' roll myth, from the days when rock and folk were on opposite sides of a spectrum, about you and Mimi and her one-time husband Richard [Farina]. The story is that Richard was talking about blending the intellectual lyrics of folk with more commercial pop music long before anybody started doing it. Was that his idea?

Joan Baez

WITH: Tracy Grammer, Richard Shindell and Dave Carter

WHERE: Palace Theatre, Greensburg

WHEN: 8 tonight

TICKETS: $25 to $35. 724-836-8000.

WEB SITE: www.joanbaez.com

Phone interview with
John Hayes

Photo Journal

Touring Information

Music Samples

1960 album "Joan Baez"

"House of the Rising Sun"

"Girl of Constant Sorrow"

1961 album "Joan Baez: Vol 2"

"Banks of the Ohio"

"I Once Loved a Boy"

Visit the following sites to download players for Windows or Mac machines to listen to the files:

Real Player
Microsoft Windows Media Player


An antidote to the bubble-gum era? I don't think so. He was an interesting guy. He was pretty wacky. He mostly just talked. Out of that often came some very interesting things. I was in high school on the West Coast [when the folk movement started], and when I hit Cambridge, there was the phenomenon of the coffeeshops. But I didn't hang out with intellectuals, so I wouldn't have heard about it, anyway. I never knew anything about the songs that I sang. I never talked about music. A lot of things just slipped past me.

You were recording with Richard when he died [in a 1966 motorcycle accident]. Some people have speculated that it could have been an important album.

That's funny. I'm glad it never got out.

It was that bad?

Yeah. [Laughs.] It was a very strange place, musically. We were just hanging out in the house together -- Mimi and him and other folks and myself. What I was listening to was [Burt Bacharach] and Dionne Warwick, so that's what I sang. But I wasn't any good at it.

Tell me about the new Vanguard reissues ("Joan Baez," 1960; "Joan Baez, Vol. 2," 1961).

I love them. I'm really happy I kept [ownership of] about two-thirds of my records.

There's some new material that was never released.

Yes there is, and I'm sure there's more stuff out there stashed away that we either can't find or disappeared. Some of these songs, I have no memory of at all. And they're beautiful. "I Once Loved a Boy" [from "Vol. 2"] -- oh Jesus! -- I mean, it's spectacular to me listening, divorcing myself from who it is. Each record will have something that wasn't released on it. I never listened to them until about three years ago. I remember distinctly because I was sleeping in my tree house and thought I would take the album up there ...

Umm, you have a tree house?

Yeah. I sleep in it all summer. It doesn't have a roof on it, so when it rains I have to go inside. [Laughs.] You know those relaxation tapes that say, go to someplace where you're really happy? For me, it's out there in my tree house with a handful of bird seed and a chickadee on my hand. I also have an outside bed over my mother's house, which is just below me [outside of San Francisco].

You are the nature girl, aren't you?

I am a real nature girl. I love sleeping in the snow and stuff like that. So, I'm back in my tree house, comfy and happy, and I'm listening to those albums. It did take me back, yeah. And once in a while, I'd wish I didn't speed up so much when I was playing, because I always speeded up.

And then there came a period [in the '80s] when I didn't like my voice. I'm sure it was a psychological low. It was, I suppose, being that famous that young, I didn't understand when that started to change.

The time period when I wasn't happy with [the voice] was just a time when I wasn't very happy. I'm happy to talk about it, because it's useful for people. I finally got to the real demons that caused the symptomatic stuff for me that nobody knew about -- panic attacks and phobias, insomnia and stuff. That's all gone now. It's my opinion that the demons don't go until you really rip them out by the roots.

How long did that last?

It's still going on to some degree, but I would say getting through the tunnel to daylight took about seven or eight years. It was my choice and the choice of my therapist that I didn't want to have my life stop. But it was difficult, very difficult.

Was songwriting cathartic for you?

I wasn't writing then. I think the last songs that I wrote were on "Play Me Backwards" [1992, Virgin]. I didn't want to do anything that was difficult anymore because it was difficult enough to deal with the changes and the shock and the frightening stuff that went with the music.

So touring and singing other peoples' songs kept a semblance of normality in your life.

Yeah, in a way. But I thought of it as, that's what I do. I said, listen, I don't want to write songs anymore -- push me out on stage and I'll sing. But my manager has come up with some wonderful ideas.

Like the tours showcasing new singer-songwriters?

People said I'm mentoring these people. That's just a load of BS. I mean, I love them. Dar Williams was on tour with me; Richard Shindell is with us now. I never would have met [them] if I hadn't gone in this direction.

So during a period when you're not writing, you bring songwriters out so there's at least something new to offer to the shows.

Exactly. With most of them, I have some kind of a relationship that continues.

You're working on a new album.

Uh-huh. About half of it is made. None of this is sure, but there are six songs down and I like them. And I did it fast, in five days. That's what I want to do. I'm not very ambitious. I think ambition is a killer, the whole American competitive stuff. If I'm ambitious, I don't enjoy the people who are around me.

So you'd say you're in a comfortable place in your career?

Very comfortable. This way, I'm happy when I'm on stage.

What's coming up that I don't know about that's interesting?

The state of the world is interesting. For me, I always try to respond to it. It isn't terribly clear to me yet, but I feel that until we're really interested enough in world peace to listen to some Nobel Peace Prize winners instead of the generals, then I think we're gonna stay in trouble.

Are you still optimistic about people after all this time?

I was never optimistic. About people, yes. About human behavior, no. Rather than being optimistic about the world, I think I'm realistic. I don't have to be a raving optimist. I think you have to know there's hope, looking in the face of what looks like hopelessness. ... Any social change, small or large, usually starts with two or three people.

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