Music

Joan Baez

Worth the wait

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What: An Evening with Joan Baez
When: 8pm Thurs., Nov. 13
Where: Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St.
Cost: $49-$79
Info: http://www.mountbakertheatre.com

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The problem in trying to talk about Joan Baez is that there’s so much to talk about when it comes to the legendary folk musician. One could easily focus solely on her music career, which has spanned some 60 years and includes, among many other achievements and accolades, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and millions of fans the world over. But to do that would be to ignore her extensive commitment and boots-on-the-ground devotion to causes relating to social justice, which predates her life as the Queen of Folk.

If Baez were to choose, she would most certainly want the emphasis to be placed clearly and directly on her work as an activist—not to receive well-deserved validation for her life as a serious rabble-rouser, but to shed light on the causes to which she has devoted her life. On that point, Baez has been very clear, famously saying, “If people have to put labels on me, I’d prefer the first label to be human being, the second label to be pacifist, and the third to be folk singer.”

However, it’s not possible to talk about the music and omit the message because, for Baez, the two are inextricably linked and have been since she was just a teenager.

Born a natural singer, Baez soon augmented her extraordinary and distinctive voice with instrumentation—the ukulele. She learned four chords on the diminutive instrument and set her sights on rhythm and blues. However, about the same time her folks were expressing fears that her chosen path would lead her down the dark road to drug addiction, Baez also attended a Pete Seeger concert, found herself curiously affected and her musical destiny has been sealed ever since.

Shortly thereafter, Baez bought an acoustic guitar, moved to Massachusetts with her family and set about conquering the burgeoning and dynamic Boston folk scene with her singular voice, quietly commanding presence and inimitable style. From there, she began her folk takeover of the rest of the world from the storied stage that launched several music careers: the Newport Folk Festival. Baez would return the favor in a big way just a few years later, after she’d attained a measure of acclaim in her own career, by introducing the world to a young Bob Dylan on that very same stage, profoundly altering both her career trajectory and his.

Baez’s relationship with Dylan is perhaps her most famous artistic collaboration, but it’s hardly her only one. Although she’s certainly written her fair share of songs, folk and otherwise, Baez is most chiefly known for her moving interpretation of the songs of others. Her covers of the Band’s “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down,” Phil Ochs’ “There But for the Fortune,” Dylan’s “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word,” and even the Southern spiritual “We Shall Overcome” were hits for Baez as well as songs she made wholly her own.

It’s no accident that “We Shall Overcome,” the song so closely identified with the Civil Rights movement in this country, was one chosen by Baez—indeed the song’s message and mission dovetailed exactly with her passion for social justice. Far from being a singer who uses her voice and position to espouse her political and social beliefs, Baez is instead an activist who also happens to have a righteous singing voice. Even if she’d never picked up that ukulele all those years ago, it’s not hard to imagine she would’ve devoted her life to making our world a better place.

Her ardent activism was awoken early, when a teenage Baez saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and it has never abated. She’s marched with Dr. King and fervently opposed the Vietnam war, being jailed more than once for protesting, prompting another famous Baez quote, “I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war” in a 1967 magazine interview after her release. Baez helped to found Amnesty International in the United States, was banned from performing in three countries during a South American tour by leaders fearful of the reach and pull of her voice and platform, and was the recipient of one of the very first Thomas Merton awards, a prestigious honor that has also been granted to the likes of Howard Zinn, Angela Davis, and Noam Chomsky. As well, she was at the vanguard of the struggle for LGBTQ equality, has been a vocal and musical opponent of the death penalty, advocated for the environment, rallied against the war in Iraq, railed against poverty and on behalf of illegal immigrants, and made a rare political endorsement in 2008, when she threw her not inconsiderable support behind Barack Obama. She has an award named after her, bestowed by Amnesty International and given each year to an artist who has similarly worked to advance human rights—although the pool of people who have engaged in the breadth and depth of social justice work of Baez is limited indeed. The folksinger even recently urged adoption for a “groovy and hip” shelter cat—a ginger tabby named Joan Baez.

Although one has to wonder how she finds the time, Baez still devotes a goodly amount of her schedule to touring. Indeed, her Nov. 13 show at the Mount Baker Theatre is a rescheduled event, after she was forced to cancel a July 20 concert due to a wicked bout of laryngitis. It’s not often that we get to eagerly anticipate the same show twice, but Baez is well worth the wait.

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