In the 1960s, Joan Baez was one of the United States’ most acclaimed interpretive folk singers. Now, 35 years later, Baez’s career is going strong. Playing this weekend at the Palace Theater, her soulful ballads will likely steal the hearts of New Haven residents and Yalies alike. Baez spoke to scene reporter Michael Sloan Wednesday.
scene: How has folk music changed since you began your career?
JB: Pure folk music never really changes. New folk — there are all sorts of names for it — is harder to define. Is Dar Williams folk music? Is Tracy Chapman folk or rock? When I write “Diamonds and Rust,” is that folk music?
scene: Was there this ambiguity when you started?
JB: I was a purist and had it in black and white what was good and what wasn’t. I learned everything from somebody else. I wouldn’t claim rights to [the songs] on the records, so I didn’t get royalties. People would just grab them because they were public domain.
scene: Has there been a concerted response by folk musicians to the events of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan?
JB: I haven’t heard anything that’s emerged yet, but I’m guessing there are a lot things in the works. Probably 90 percent of them won’t be anything that I would want to sing, because it takes a real gift to write about that. It has to be some huge understatement.
scene: What do you think of the Bush administration’s response to the attacks?
JB: I think it’s the worst possible response anyone could have. It’s not a response — it’s a reaction, and that’s the trick. People always say, “We tried everything and nothing worked, so we have to resort to bombing.” But we didn’t try anything. Understandably [Americans] were horrified, and shocked, and frightened. It was new for us in this country.
Somehow, we have to live in other people’s shoes to survive as a human race. Even if it’s only for a moment, we have to live in the shoes of a 15-year-old Arab boy in the middle of the desert during the Gulf War, who was possibly recruited at gunpoint. He had no desire to be there, but had no choice. These people are not remembered or mentioned or thought of as human beings.
scene: You’ve published two autobiographies, as well as autobiographical songs like “Diamonds and Rust.” What can you do in prose that you can’t do lyrically, and vice versa?
JB: That’s a good question.
scene: My dean [Laura King] actually helped me out with that one.
JB: Well, that’s the first time anybody’s ever asked me that question.
Once I went to Nashville with a bunch of poems because I wrote poetry really easily. I thought, let’s just make these into songs, but one had nothing to do with the other.
A poem is something you can sit and muse over until you fully understand it. A song has to deliver in two and a half or three minutes, so that people walk away with some understanding of what happened during the song.
This means the inevitable hook — which is a horrible word. I’m happy to say that the one song that I wrote that became well-known had nothing to do with how you’re supposed to write songs. “Diamonds and Rust” has no hook.
Also, in a song, you can move multitudes of people no matter what language they speak. Music is a tremendous barrier-breaker. It has to do with where it strikes somebody in their heart or their memory pocket. It’s the context that it’s in.
For instance, I don’t sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in this country, but when I gave a concert in Romania a few years ago, the students on one side of the started singing “Donna Donna,” “Kumbaya,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Imagine.” They didn’t stop until I sang it with them. It was beautiful. Those songs were absolutely current in the condition their country was in.
scene: What do you do to protect your voice?
JB: I vocalize every day, and I don’t drink and smoke and do drugs and stuff like that. Fortunately, I never did, because I think it tells on everybody after a while. I eat very carefully and stay out of cold winds and so on.
scene: Have you read David Hajdu’s “Positively 4th Street”?
JB: I read parts of it.
scene: Are there any misconceptions about you that appear in the book or in the press in general that you’d like to clear up?
JB: Usually when you’re not keen on what somebody’s written about you, it’s the part that’s true that bothers you, not the part where they didn’t get it right.
scene: Do you think Hajdu did an accurate job?
JB: Well, no, he didn’t. In the first couple of pages he said that I had a terrible complex because of a scar. My sister, Pauline, has the scar. He wasn’t that careful with that kind of stuff.
scene: In the early 1960s, you played in Harvard Square and coffee houses in New York. Do you have any special memories of New Haven — possibly of Yale?
JB: I have memories of Yale because Pauline’s ex-husband [Brice Marden ART ’63] was in art school, and they had just had their baby and they were literally starving. My only real recollections are of taking them for food. He now — by the way — is possibly the highest-paid artist in the Western world. He was making frames and working in a frame shop to support them back then.
scene: I read that you appeared with Hugh Hefner on “Playboy After Dark” in 1968.
JB: I did. I saw it again just before I left home [for this tour].
scene: How did that come about?
JB: Hugh Hefner is an interesting man. Back then he supported a lot of anti-war things which were not tax deductible, which is very rare for millionaires. At that stage, I felt that as long as I stayed me, it was OK to go places like that, and it turned out that it was. Tommy Smothers was there and we actually had what resembled a conversation on the air. It was a riot watching it — with these bunnies walking all around. I couldn’t believe that I had been there. I was my strident, difficult, irksome self with them — the same way I was with everybody else.