I once sat at Joan Baez’s feet. Quite literally. And it was not my finest hour. It must have been the summer of 1970. I was on the staff of the old Chicago underground newspaper, the Seed. Baez was in town for a benefit for the outfit known as Another Mother for Peace—nice middle class ladies, many of them budding feminists who gave the shaggy, scruffy anti-Vietnam War movement a respectable face. After all, what cop would split the skulls of the PTA? We received an unusually elegant invitation to a press open house with Ms. Baez in the lofty digs of some very rich person occupying an aerie in the new John Hancock Building which was still largely unoccupied. I snatched it up. I may not even have showed it to other members of the staff collective. I wanted to cover this story as they say now in depth and personal.Another Mother for Peace's famous poster seemed to be everywhere in 1970.
I had worshiped, there is no other word for it, Joan Baez since my earliest years in high school—that exquisite soprano of unbelievable purity, that soulfulness, the Madonna-like iconography of her album covers. She was a genuine heroine—we still used those quaint female forms then without shame or embarrassment, of the causes I held dear. She had, time and again, laid it on the line for real in the Civil Rights struggles and the anti-War movement. She had been arrested. She had gone to jail—“I went to jail for eleven days for disturbing the peace. I was trying to disturb the war,” she said. And she married a draft resistor, like me. I was still hanging in a sort of limbo awaiting trial and prison. I sometimes pretended that when she sang David’s Song she was singing to me.
One evening, I took the Lincoln Avenue Bus, which cruised down Michigan Avenue on its way to the Loop and got off at the massive new building. I don’t think the lobby was even fully finished. I had to take two elevators to reach a very high floor. A short distance from the doors was a sprawling apartment filled with modern furniture and expensive art. It was already crowed. Real reporters in suites and ties, a scattering of local celebrities, and several elegant ladies in cocktail dresses and pearls who I took to be members of Another Mother. And me in my battered old straw cowboy hat, a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up just below the elbow, a fringed leather vest emblazoned by my Wobbly button, a red kerchief knotted at the throat, threadbare jeans, and scuffed Dingo boots.
Joan was sitting casually on a couch with her back to a huge window with a panoramic view of the lights of the city. She was chatting comfortably with one or two people at a time. She had cut off those famous long black tresses and was sporting short hair style. She had on a knotted scarf and some kind of jeweled pin on a light colored summer sweater with sleeves pushed up to feature her elegant arms and long fingered hands, silver rings on her fingers.Joan much the way she looked at the press reception.
An efficient young woman in business attire appeared beside me and asked my name. I told her. She found it on the approved list on her clipboard. Joan, she said, would find time to speak personally with each of the media present for five minutes or so each. Enough time to ask a question, maybe two, and harvest a quote that would differentiate my story from any of the other filed that day. And by the way, she said, here is a press kit and a glossy photo with everything you need to know about our event and cause. She explained that it would be a half hour or more before my turn came. In the meantime, I could feel free to bide my time with hors d’oeuvres and take advantage of a well-stocked open bar.
This was undoubtedly a good way to win the hearts and minds of Chicago’s notoriously hard drinking press corps. I knew guys here—and gals—who could slug it down all night hopping from the Billy Goat, to Riccardo’s, to O’Rourke’s, and then on to some four o’clock dive. But I was not in their league, however much I aspired to be. I could seldom afford anything but beer and had not yet built up the tolerance of the long term drunk. And I had arrived at this gathering after toking up some righteous weed, just to settle the butterflies in my stomach.
I made a bee line for the bar where the bartender did not blink an eye at my order of a glass of stout and Jameson’s, neat. He free poured a generous glass. I wandered off to admire, or at least stare at the artwork and to gape at the city spread out below me. I came back and ordered another. And again. I was polishing off that third drink when the somewhat nervous looking lady flack came over to bring me to my rendezvous with Joan.
By this time the room had thinned—the real reporters dispersing to either file their stories or check into their bar of choice for the evening. The ladies of the Host Committee had mostly gone to the concert venue. I would not have much time, I was told. Joan would have to leave soon.
Instead of taking the proffered seat on the couch next to Joan, I plunked myself down on the floor next to her trim, tanned legs, propping my elbow on the cushion beside her. I may, probably did, still have a drink, in the other hand. When I opened my mouth she was enveloped in a toxic fog of whiskey and stale Prince Albert smoke from the cigarettes I hand rolled. I immediately launched into a loud, slurred introduction—big fan, Wobbly (pointing to my red button) like Joe Hill, and, oh, yea, a Draft Resister like David. On and on I blathered.
Joan nodded and smiled, her white teeth dazzling against her dark skin. When I finally drew a breath she asked me gently if I had a question. I was sure I had prepared one. But it had flown off like the last robin on the winds of the first blizzard. I stuttered and stammered. Don’t know if I got anything out.
The young press person came over and gently tapped Joan on the shoulder. It was time to go. In a moment she was gone. The ride I had been promised to the concert pointedly did not appear. I was soon in a room with maids emptying ashtrays and clearing glasses.
I staggered to the elevator and down to the street where I caught a bus north. I got off at Fullerton and dashed into Consumer’s Tap to refresh my buzz. Then to the IWW hall just down the street. I climbed the long stairs to the converted bowling ally space. It was a Wednesday night so the big weekly community meeting was going on, folks arranged in wide circle of wooden-seat folding chairs. At some point in the evening, I stood up and gave a speech about “the hard arms of the working class.” It was not my finest hour.
I knocked out some kind of story for the Seed disguising my shame by recapitulating the press packet and caging accounts of the concert from those who had seen it.
Almost than 50 years later I was stunned to receive a facebook friend request from Joan Baez. Not that she remembered me. She had found a blog post I did about Richard Fariña and her sister Mimi and liked it. The link was to her professional page, not a personal one, so it might not have come from her at all. Still, it was a thrill. I messaged her a much briefer account of our meeting and my profoundest apology for being such an enormous ass. If she got it, she never replied.
But I was cleansed. Sort of.
The occasion for this little walk down memory lane is Baez’s birthday. She was born on January 9, 1941 on Staten Island, New York. She was the granddaughter of a Mexican born convert from Catholicism and Methodist minister. Her father, Albert, was also born in Mexico and was a distinguished physicist and mathematician. Her mother Joan—or Big Joan as she would come to be known to avoid confusion—was the Scottish born daughter of an Anglican priest with the soul of an artist and a love of traditional music. In her early youth the family converted to Quakerism and its pacifism and social justice traditions became second nature to her.The Baez girls--Mom Big Joan with older sister Pauline, younger sister Mimi and Joan mugging for the camera in 1953.
Her father took up service with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) working on public health issues as an extension of his Quaker beliefs. The family traveled and lived in Britain, France, Switzerland, Spain, Canada, and even Iraq before settling in Cambridge when her father began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That was 1958 and teenage Joan found herself an outcast in her new high school both for the brown skin and black hair that betrayed her Mexican heritage and her pacifist ideas.
She picked up first a ukulele and then a guitar and was soon singing in the thriving coffee house scene of Cambridge and Boston performing a repertoire of mostly traditional Scottish folk songs and Appalachian Childe Ballads that she had learned from her mother’s record collection. Her incredibly pure soprano voice and ethereal presentation soon attracted attention.
Baez enrolled at the University of Boston after graduating from high school, but had little interest in classes and seldom attended them. Instead she engaged in campus activism, especially in the Ban the Bomb peace movement and watched with growing admiration the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the South and its non-violent civil disobedience. Mostly she concentrated on her music and a relationship with Michael New, a fellow student from Trinidad.
She was quickly rising on the local music scene. Along with two other coffee house musicians she recorded self-produced album, Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square that they peddled at their gigs. She attracted the attention of two of the mainstays of folk music—Bob Gibson and Odetta. Odetta became an enormous influence on her music, including broadening her song choices and infusing a soulful, gospel style. Gibson brought her along with him to the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 where she created something of a sensation. Her professional career was launched at the highest levels of folk music.
Annual appearances at Newport cemented her reputation. It also brought her under the tutelage and encouragement of Pete Seeger who not only boosted her career but helped her integrate her music with social action where it counted. She was soon marching and singing in the Civil Rights movement, not just cheering from the sidelines.
Her first professional album for Vanguard, the self-titled Joan Baez, was produced by folk music royalty—Fred Hellerman of the Weavers—and was released in 1960 when she was still only 19 years old. It was followed quickly by Joan Baez, Vol. 2 in1961which went gold for the first time, Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1 in 1962, and Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 in 1963. The live albums departed from the strictly traditional material on the first two and included all new and contemporary material, including protest songs. Part 2 included her first cover a song by a rising singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan.The Time cover was a badge of national importance.
By this time Baez was the undisputed reigning queen of the Folk Revival and playing successful concerts all across the country. By November 1962 she was even on the cover of Time Magazine, then one of the highest validations of pop culture status.
Baez first met Dylan in Greenwich Village in 1961. Over time they grew close. By 1963 she invited him on tour with her, letting him do a short set and singing duets with him. This boosted Dylan’s reputation and career outside of the Village folk scene. It also ignited a passionate love affair. She referred to the younger man as her “ragamuffin and vagabond.” She cherished his creativity and even his self-obsessed quirks. In return he said, “Joan looked like a religious icon, like somebody you’d sacrifice yourself for. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.”
Bob Dylan and Joan--"I couldn't take my eyes off of her."
The two were nearly inseparable for two years. Photos of the two from the period show them almost ecstatically sharing a microphone and stage or in candid shots grinning happily or staring moodily into each other’s eyes. Baez introduced Dylan to the 1963 Newport Festival audience which was as taken with him as they had been with her four years earlier.
Trouble in paradise brewed as Dylan’s star meteorically rose, spurred on by boosts from Baez and Seeger and by covers of his songs by Peter, Paul & Mary and the folk-rock band The Byrds. Things went disastrously wrong on a trip to England in 1965 where Dylan was lionized and dragged Baez around almost as an accessory without sharing the stage with her in his concerts as promised. Shortly after returning to the States, Dylan unceremoniously dumped her and quickly married former model Sara Lownds who was already pregnant and with whom he had been carrying on an affair while still with Baez. Later Dylan told his closest friend that he married Sara rather than Joan, because “Sara would always be there for me. Joan couldn’t be.”
Baez was devastated by the break-up yet the connection was never totally broken. They reunited on stage, most memorably for Dylan’s epic Rolling Thunder tour in 1975 and the filming of Renaldo and Clara at the same time. Sara was also along on the tour and played Clara in the film. Baez played the ethereal Lady in White. Baez later left a European tour with Dylan half way through paying a huge penalty for breaking her contract. Bitterness surrounding that episode lingered and came out in her song Diamonds and Rust and in her in her 1987 memoir A Voice to Sing With. But despite strains, the connection remained. Even after the bitter European tour episode she went to Nashville to record a country-rock album of Dylan songs, Any Day Now in 1968. Today both of the famous performers speak fondly of the other in interviews.
Despite her tumultuous love life, Baez was extremely busy in those years dividing her time between recording and touring on one hand and activism on the others. She famously sang We Shall Overcome at the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice from the steps of the Lincoln Monument. She became personally close to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and spent hours with him in private conversation about non-violence. In 1964 she co-founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, now part of the Resource Center for Nonviolence with which she is still active. After the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama Black Church in 1964 she recorded the song written by her brother-in-law Richard Fariña, Birmingham Sunday.
She was also an early activist against the War in Vietnam. In 1964 she endorsed income tax resistance to protest the war and withheld 60% of her substantial 1963 taxes—the percentage of the total due which would have gone to Defense spending. She sang at anti-war rallies, but she also marched. And she spoke advocating non-violent direct action against the war including Draft resistance. In October 1997 Baez, her mother, and 70 other women blocked the entrance to the Oakland Induction Center. All were arrested and she was sentenced to jail, serving 11 days. It was in connection with this action that she met anti-draft activist David Harris.With Draft resistor husband David Harris on the California peace commune where they lived.
Upon her release the two moved in together and lived in a Northern California peace commune. They were wed in New York City on March 28, 1968. Shortly after the wedding David refused induction. He was arrested at their commune home while Joan was pregnant. He was convicted and began serving a 15 month sentence in July of 1969. She told the story of their relationship and separation in her bestselling memoir Daybreak later that year and sung several songs about it in her second Nashville release, David’s Album. The period was also documented in the film Any Day Now which was released in 1970.
When Baez took the stage in the wee small hours of the morning at the Woodstock festival in the summer of ’69 David had just begun serving his sentence and she was visibly pregnant. The legendary festival is thought by many to represent the end of the folk era and launch of the post-British Invasion Rock and Roll era. She scheduling of Baez, still a huge star, in the middle of the night was emblematic of that. But when the film of the concert was released in 1972, Baez’s performance electrified audiences as much as any of the bands. Her rendition of I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night became iconic.
When David returned to the California commune after completing his sentence, the marriage came under strain. Part of it was Baez’s busy touring and recording schedule and frequent activist trips. Part of it was Harris’s difficulty in adjusting to being “Mr. Baez.” And reportedly part of it was his lack of sensitivity to Baez’s growing feminism. The couple had already been separated for some time when they were granted a divorce in 1973. The separation was amicable and they shared custody of their son, Gabriel Harris who had been born in December, 1969. The boy lived mostly with his mother in a California home she built. Afterward Baez simply said, “I was meant to be alone.”
She never had another long term committed relationship, although enjoyed several brief affairs. Perhaps the most serious relationship she had was in the mid-80’s with Apple founder Steve Jobs, twenty years her junior, who reportedly asked her to marry him.
Mike Allen, Joan, and Barry Romo of Vietnam Veterans Against the War walking through the rubble of Gialam International Airport after it had been bombed by American B52s during their visit to Hanoi in 1973.
Professionally, Baez was expanding her horizons, adding strings and orchestrations to some albums, experimenting with spoken word, and delving deeply into country-rock. Almost every new album embraced a new style or theme. In 1971 she left her long time label Vanguard and signed with California based A&M Records owned by Herb Alpert. In her six records for that label in four years she continued experimenting. 1973’s Where Are You Now My Son contained a 23 minute long piece that combined a spoken word poem and sound of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi that Baez endured for 11 days on a visit to that war ravaged country. The next year she released her first Spanish language album featuring Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida as the title track. In 1975 she had her biggest pop success with Diamonds & Rust.
Baez has continued to produce new music and has released 60 albums over her long career. And she remained ever the activist, singing and marching with equal fervor at events ranging from the Vietnam Moratorium to Phil Ochs’s The War Is Over celebration in New York City in May 1975. As the war wound down she turned her attention more and more to human rights issues, becoming a founding member of the American Section of Amnesty International. By the late ‘70’s she had become alarmed at the treatment of dissidents, Catholics, and ethnic minorities in Vietnam, especially the plight of the boat people. In 1979 she broke with some former colleagues in the Anti-war movement and printed full page ads in major national newspapers to protest the repressive policies of the Communist government. She founded her own human rights organization, Humanitas International, which speaks out equally against repression by regimes of the right and the left.
She condemned the Chinese suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests on one hand and took made a highly dangerous visit to Chile, Brazil and Argentina in 1981, each then governed by highly repressive right wing military dictatorships, on the other. On that trip she could not publicly perform and was under constant surveillance and the subject of death threats. The film There But for Fortune documented the experience and was shown on PBS television stations.
Joan in a flack jacket in Sarajevo which she visited while it was still under siege by the Serbs.
Baez has gone seemingly everywhere there was war, oppression and injustice. That included a reconciliation concert in Sarajevo and a return to war ravaged Iraq, where she had spent part of her girlhood. Needless to say, she marched against the Gulf War and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She also participated in Earth Day events, supported Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender rights, and supported Occupy Wall Street. In 2008 for the first time in her long career Baez endorsed a political candidate—Barack Obama.
When she was not traveling Baez lives in her longtime home in Woodside, California where a back yard tree house is her private retreat for meditation and writing. She shared her home with her mom, Big Joan since her father’s death in 2007 at the age of 94, until she died in 2013 at age 100. With genes like that and healthy living Joan may be with us as long as her old friend and mentor Pete Seeger.Ageless and irrepressible Joan dances to the beat by her son Gabriel.
After releasing her first new album in 10 years, Whistle Down the Wind, in 1918 Baez announced her retirement after a farewell tour. Taking retirement philosophically, she told the New York Times simply “I don’t make history. I am history.” Her farewell American concert was on May Day 1919 in New York and was followed by a month of European dates. Thankfully she continues to make occasional special appearances for causes she continues to hold dear.Joan on the Kennedy Center Honors last December. She pointedly chose Dr. Anthony Faucci as her personal guest.
In 2021 Baez was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors, a fitting tribute to an extraordinary life and career.