When asked whether there was an artistic attribute that has helped sustain her career as one of the most cherished folk artists of several generations, Joan Baez offers a reply as exact as it is succinct.
She means it, too. But the reply isn’t an arrogant one. In conversation, Baez is animated and in no way self-serving. She has simply viewed her talent, her voice and her artistic instinct as a collective gift, from the instant her career ignited at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 right through to a star-studded January concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre in honor of the singer/activist’s 75th birthday. Baez sees herself not so much as the creator of that talent but rather as its custodian.
“People ask how come I’ve lasted so long, and I say, ‘Talent.’ I mean, that is part of it,” she says. “That is a magical part of it, but that was given to me. I can sit here and joke about it, because it doesn’t have much to do with me. My job is maintenance and delivery, and other things like meeting these younger people and getting to know them. I realize many of them say, ‘Oh, my dad and mom listened to you and it meant this and it meant that.’ So I listened to those things for many years. These people kind of came into my life, some of them by invitation, some simply because I heard them.”
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Both categories apply to the Beacon Theatre concert, which is to be broadcast in June as part PBS’s Great Performances series. The concert was full of artists who owed considerable cultural debt to the kind of socially conscious voice, both figurative and literal, that Baez has given to folk music for more than five decades. The guest list included Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Judy Collins and Richard Thompson, along with new-generation stylists including Irish songster Damien Rice and Chilean singer Nano Stern.
“It was a splendid evening,” Baez says. “It was a tremendous amount of work and stress. But I’ve had enough work with hypnosis and Native American practices that when, finally, everything was together, I walked out onstage and just had a wonderful time.”
Baez’s career took flight during a decade when there was not just a laundry list of social issues to address — the Vietnam War, the military draft that accompanied it, the civil rights movement and environmental causes — but a generation of folk artists whose music confronted the times. Different social obstacles exist today, she says, but not necessarily the music on a scale large and inventive enough to properly address them.
“Music should be something to reflect the situations we are in,” Baez says. “But there is so much talent that came out of the ’60s and ’70s that people are trying to recapture. Some of the songwriting is good, but there haven’t been any anthems. There hasn’t been a Blowin’ in the Wind or an Imagine. That’s probably the hardest thing in the world, to write an anthem. I think there are a lot of kids who are concerned about the state of the world and who do, in fact, write some pretty good songs. They just don’t have much of a platform right now. There are no icons at the moment.”
The responsibilities of a folk matriarch don’t stop with keeping a torch for social awareness that was ignited decades ago. Her duties also involve upkeep, a balance of health and attitude necessary to fuel a prolonged, sustained performance life.
“The most difficult thing is the voice, because it begins to betray you, actually, in your mid-30s. A few years back, I went to see an ear, nose and throat guy because I was having so much trouble my voice. The fact was that, at that point, I had a 71-year-old voice and that was simply not what I wanted to hear. I mean, I had perfected the vibrato by the time I was 14, and now it was not there anymore the way I wanted it to hear it. So it’s all smoke and mirrors now. I have to figure out ways to get notes that are comfortable so they are listenable and make as few of them as possible, which means I lower the range. But there is something about the lower range that I really do love. I think it reflects a lifetime.”
There are also less crucial but taxing forms of upkeep that have to take a back seat in a career that continues to move briskly. Baez recalled one such fleeting bit of maintenance that had to be jettisoned during the Beacon concert.
“There was no time for me to fix my hair,” she says with a rich laugh. “I haven’t seen the footage. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t look as weird as I think it did.”