CHICAGO — Joan Baez is calling from Paris the morning after a sold-out concert, and she’s seen the news reports coming out of Chicago.
“You have a number of activities going on in town, I understand,” she says with an understated laugh.
She’s not talking about Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s new budget or the Cubs’ pursuit of Theo Epstein. Instead, the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that spread to Chicago recently are her focus — and what else would you expect from an artist who has blended music and activism so effortlessly throughout a career that began in the late ‘50s? As one of the most outspoken anti-war and civil-rights advocates of her time, Baez is eager to talk about how ordinary people can affect change if they put their collective minds and bodies to the task.
Q: Are the “Occupy Wall Street” protests giving you flashbacks?
A: I think they are exciting, they have huge potential. We need to have faith in the people who are giving this movement direction to be smart enough to stay one step ahead of what’s coming up next. The right wing has been so mobilized for so long, the job is a big one. But I can assure you that while I’ve been over here in Europe, everybody’s watching it.
Q: What a tumultuous year it’s been, with dictators overthrown in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and protests in the streets of major American cities. Where’s the soundtrack for this era?
A: It hasn’t been written yet. It’s a very difficult spot. Nothing can compare to what happened over a 10-year period of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That ain’t coming back. The hardest song to write is a protest song, a topical song with meaning. People are cranking them out all the time, but people have to latch on to it, and use those songs. I was watching the Brooklyn Bridge protest, and I noticed there were two things missing: music and silence. If you don’t have music, you have silence. And that had neither. There is power in both.
Q: Are you doing any music in your concerts to address what’s going on now?
A: I’ve had a couple ideas over here about that, performing some songs that have already been written but are not widely known in the States. I’m looking for something with decent lyrics and that people can remember. The ultimate is “We Shall Overcome” (Baez put her stamp on the civil-rights movement by performing the song in the 1963 march on Washington with 300,000 people). But we need something different for this era. That song puts us in a little knot hole, and we need to be broader than that now.
Q: Key to that era is that those kinds of songs were widely heard, became part of the language of the time. We’re more fragmented now, don’t you think?
A: What happened back then was that the counterculture, because of this state of the world, became (mainstream) culture. The counterculture of the songs — obviously the ones (Bob) Dylan wrote are the first that come to mind — crossed over into the mainstream because of the war. That side developed so strongly because there were a lot of people in the mainstream who also felt the same way. Our problem as we’re talking here is the comparison, knowing that was the perfect storm back then. We don’t have those things to our advantage now. But there are things other than music that could poke through first. At one time it was (documentary filmmaker) Michael Moore; he came up out of the ashes and went from the counterculture to influencing how the culture thought about the world. There will be somebody else, and it might not necessarily be somebody making music.
Q: Have you thought about writing a song about what’s going on?
A: I’m not much at writing protest songs. I did at one point, but I haven’t written for years. This whole thing is very new in the States, and very encouraging to me. It’s interesting we had to learn it from the Arab world how to be on the streets.
Q: You’re famously forward-thinking, so how do you deal with performing retrospective concerts where your fans expect a certain amount of nostalgia from you?
A: They get 50 years of my music, but they get it in different doses than they planned. They get things they’ve never heard before. What I have to do well is make songs they never heard before something they enjoy on the spot and want to hear again. That’s not easy to do because they’re waiting for the ones they want to hear. To me a good concert is where at least half is stuff the audience hasn’t heard and they respond to it. I do give them the chestnuts they love at the end. And, you know what? They earned it (laughs). I won’t do “We Shall Overcome.” It’s sacrosanct in that context. I did it in Farsi when I performed in Iran. I’ll sing it in countries that are in real distress, though it seems we’re getting back to that stage in the United States, again.
Q: You’ve never done fluff. You recorded your first album when you were still a teenager, and it’s full of very adult songs looking at mortality and serious adult subjects. Where did that come from?
A: Growing up (in the ‘50s), I was a very serious kid (laughs). I’m not sure what caused that. A family can have all the same experiences, and how much is environmental, I don’t know. I have one sister who is exactly the opposite of me, who didn’t have interest in public matters, while my other sister Mimi was socially conscious. There are deep things in the hearts of kids that we don’t know much about, that we tend to write off. I had a lot of that stored up. That came out in my choice of songs. When we first moved to Cambridge (Mass.), my father was going to teach at M.I.T., and he takes us to Harvard Square, his wife and three daughters. My father sees young people discussing books and playing chess, and I see a young man playing “Plaisir d’Amour” on guitar. I knew I didn’t want to go to college, I was already playing a ukulele and after I saw that, I was hooked. All I wanted to do was play guitar and sing. I didn’t dive into bluegrass. I had to play folk. Those were solemn years for us, being very dramatic young people (laughs), before things exploded worldwide. There was something dark and mysterious about those times that demanded that kind of music.
Q: So as a teenager, the Cold War was just as troubling as your relationship with boys?
A: (Laughs) My father was a physicist and also an activist. My first public protest was with my dad at Stanford. I came by all that honestly. That dark feeling is all still present, but there has been a lot of anesthetizing. Global warming, terrorism, war. If we truly felt the extent of what’s going on, we’d lose our minds. Denial here is healthy, otherwise we’d keel over with the horror of it. But if you have awareness and are willing to feel it, now you’re dismissed as a “lefty” or “progressive.” You get dismissed for using your brain. People say I’m such a pessimist, but I always was. It never stopped me from doing what I had to do. I would say I’m a realist.
Q: You had a fairly close relationship with Martin Luther King amid the civil-rights protests. How did that come about?
A: I was 16 when he came to speak at a high school conference (in Monterey, Calif.). There was some kind of gathering run by Quakers, with 200 kids from around the country, and he was the keynote speaker. I was already acquainted with nonviolence as a concept, and here was this man talking about practicing this daily in Montgomery, Ala. I wept through the whole speech. I was completely taken. Later after I started singing, he would call me if I could be useful for a particular project. His people would come out to the Institute of Nonviolence and we would help with their training. What people don’t know was that he was funny, and he wisecracked all the time. That’s how everyone in that movement survived. But he couldn’t show that side publicly because people would think they were not serious enough.