Folk singer. Activist. Legend.
All words to describe singer Joan Baez who kicks off a 20-city fall tour in Portland on Tuesday night.
A musician on the forefront of the folk scene since the 1960s, Baez has also supported many causes and organizations through the years, including Amnesty International, and she’s currently teaming up with the Innocence Project and Innocence Network with the hopes of bringing awareness to wrongful convictions in the U.S.
In fact, her Portland performance falls on what’s been designated Wrongful Conviction Day by the Canada-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.
Volunteers from the Innocence Network will be at Merrill Auditorium to share information with concert-goers about their efforts to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes and to reform the criminal justice system to prevent further injustices.
Baez spoke from her San Francisco Bay home this month about her work with this cause, as well as about turning 75, finding solace in today’s political climate and the state of protest music.
When did you first get involved with wrongful convictions?
I started painting about six years ago, and, a few years ago, somebody sent me a book of the Innocence Project, and they had their portraits all over the country. I was poking through the book, and each of them has a full page and the story of their history, and I found one young Puerto Rican guy, and he had apparently been trying to help his brother out of a gang fight, so he had blood all over him, and he was convicted without much thought. And so I painted him and then I got more interested in the project itself and read a little bit, then I realized how many people knew about it, how many people were already engaged to one degree or another. I think it is so relevant and so localized in this country, especially with gun mania, that it seemed like the appropriate thing to do and, having worked anti-death penalty for so many years, I’ve been in touch with prisoners and Amnesty International, so it all kind of fit in there, and it’s turning out to be very interesting. I’m excited about it, to see what we can do.
What would you say is a common misconception about wrongful convictions?
The first thing that comes to my mind is ignorance; people just don’t know. I think anybody who is ever elected to public office on any level should spend a couple of days in prison — jail, actually. Jail’s worse … it’s local. Because you don’t know a country until you know their justice quote “system.” These days there is a growing lack of empathy and, from what I read on empathy, is that it literally is located in a part of the brain, and it has started shrinking, physically shrinking. Being the age of the entitled and after the years of the greed generation, it makes sense. People don’t care that much. You have to pull me up out of the darkness periodically, because I am not optimistic, but I’ve done everything I’ve done in my life being not an optimist, so I don’t think it matters.
You say you’re not an optimistic person and here we are with everything going on right now in the world. How do you not drown in it? How do you keep yourself grounded?
Part of it, you stay in partial denial. There’s a point at which denial is your friend. It’s a line you have to walk because otherwise you lose the empathy button, too. I think nature and the sound of the birds, and I just have to immerse myself in that. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by that, and that helps, and painting helps, and singing helps. And knowing that little victories in the face of this huge defeat that we’re facing, i.e. global warming and all the rest of it, the little things become, in some ways, even more important. To choose the Innocence Project and get people involved, if that’s all we have time for, then we should opt for it.
You celebrated your 75th birthday in January with an incredible concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York with guests including Indigo Girls, Richard Thompson, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, to name just a few. What did that night mean to you?
It meant a combination of things. It came about with my accepting being 75. My manager said, “Do you want to do this thing and do you mind if we make it around your birthday?” I said, “I think that would be a healthy thing to do.” Damien (Rice) was wonderful and Nano (Stern) from Chile were pretty stellar and you know and the rest, don’t knock it, they’re pretty superlative. For something like that, I submerged myself in sort of hypnotic stuff and guided imagery, and I was kind of in and out of that state for at least a week before it. Before that, it was months of recruiting people and working things out. Then it zeros down to getting close to it and then, to make the show really work, I have to be in a different kind of trance to get it to happen right. So, it was fun.
Here’s Joan Baez singing “The Boxer” with Paul Simon during her 75th Birthday celebration earlier this year in New York City. That’s Richard Thompson in the background playing guitar next to Simon.
How does new music come into your life?
I have this great story that somebody told me about Pete Seeger. They asked him what kind of music he listened to. He said he didn’t, except when he took his kids to the roller rink. I don’t spent a lot of time trying to discover new material. I mean, something will bop into my life, and I’ll get a crush on it, like Sturgill Simpson’s music, that I hadn’t known before. I dance to the Gipsy Kings, and I just re-started playing my favorite opera singer I’ve had a crush on since I was 8 — Jussi Björling, he’s Swedish. My mom introduced him to me, I mean, his records, when I was about eight years old, and he’s been by far, out of all the operatic talents, you know, there are better actors, there are more bombastic singers but this guy, for me, has the heart.
Is it more important for protest music to be performed or for people to actually be doing the activism, or is it a combination of both?
It’s got to be both. I think that all of the music in the world, without people willing to take a risk, is not going to make social change. The other side of that coin, for me, is I would not like to be involved in social change that doesn’t have music. Some parts of the world, there has been some of that, but, for the most part, that change is accompanied by music, and I think the years of “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Imagine” haven’t been repeated, and I think that what stalls people, they can’t figure out how to deal with it, because there are no new anthems. It’s impossible to write an anthem. Maybe once a decade there’s one that really sticks forever. So, we keep going back to the old ones, and I think that frustrates people. The Occupy movement needed its own anthem, and people tried to write it, and it didn’t really happen.
There are some people out there trying.
Yes, they are trying and, as I say, I would never attempt to write an anthem. It’s just terribly difficult. It’s too deep. So, I don’t know, I think people are trying to come up with things. There’s not much of a platform because most of the press is owned by the right wing. It’s not as though you really have a place that you could take your music where it’s gonna be readily accepted. What we had in the ’60s was an explosion of talent and, because of the times and the politics and all of it, it made it from counterculture into our culture, and that hasn’t happened now.
What does your set list look like these days?
It’s just taking the best of what I can do to make some kind of arc of the evening, including old stuff, some stories, some things people have never heard before, and then the things they came to hear in the first place.
Here’s a classic clip of Joan Baez performing The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4. Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland, $58 to $88. porttix.com