With a career that has spanned over 50 years, it is no wonder that Joan Baez is considered a legend in her own time. Her contribution as a musician and political activist has helped amplify the voices of people in the farthest reaches.
From movements in Argentina such as the Mothers of the Disappeared to her friendship with the first democratically elected president of the former Czechoslovakia, Baez talks generously and openly about the many adventures that have filled her life. She doesn’t hold back as she shares her theories on why our generation struggles to find its political voice within the musical mainstream and even gives Vancouver Weekly her thoughts on Barack Obama.
Vancouver Weekly: Looking back at your career, you’ve been quite vocal about issues from the Vietnam War, to gay and lesbian rights, environmental issues, and the Occupy Wall Street movement to name a few. How did you get started as an activist?
Joan Baez: My father was a Quaker. The Quaker religion is probably, with some forms of Buddhism, the only religion that really takes seriously that you don’t get to kill anybody. Most people are willing to say that up to a point and happy to pull the trigger.
He became a Quaker when I was eight. That was kind of my upbringing.
The first march I ever went on was against the bomb shelters in 1954. I went because I wanted to go with him. It started a long time ago.
VW: Were you ever concerned about getting hurt during a protest?
JB: Well, you really can’t stop and worry about that once you’re committed. I would say in general, the issue of risk hasn’t been tackled much in the last 40 years. There are some people that are willing to take a risk but up until a point, which always really ends up in a civil disobedience of one kind or another. Then the rest of it is all preparatory. You can’t make the serious change until you’re willing to be arrested or whatever is needed. Some form of risk-taking is involved.
VW: Could you share a story of a particular protest where you were taking those types of risks?
JB: Fortunately for those of us in the western world who don’t suffer the types of injustice, say in dictatorships and places where I’ve been where that is the order of the day, there are times when you’re smart enough to be nervous and times when we just don’t get it. We don’t get that you could be threatened walking down the street with someone showing you an arm full of guns. That happened to a good friend of mine who was a Noble Peace Prize winner in Argentina. That was Pérez Esquivel. I didn’t understand it. He was on his way back to his office, and we were all planning a demonstration with the Mothers of the Disappeared. Those were the mothers that had their children taken away in the 60s, 70s, and 80s by the dictatorship. We were planning to walk with them, which they did once a week. And he came back white faced. Some man had stopped him turning a corner and opened his coat – there was this whole line of guns. And he said, “Don’t let her march with the mothers.” He knew enough to be terrified. I kind of really didn’t get it.
VW: Did you end up talking to many of the Mothers of the Disappeared at the time?
JB: I did. I went and sang with them. We spent a lot of time together. And the beauty of it is that this time I went back in the beginning of this year, and I was finally able to sing. I’d been before, but the government stopped me from singing. If you get near that microphone or get on a stage we will arrest you! So, I didn’t test them. They were too ferocious. What I needed to do there was support the people in any way I could. So when I went back and gave the concert, a lot of the mothers were now grandmothers like me. We shared time, and they were very, very moving. I sang, “We Shall Overcome them” which I seldom do.
A lot of tight bonds are made under conditions like that when you are together.