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Peace at Last?

This week, Joan Baez returns to Cambridge to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Club Passim, where it all began for her. Being a living legend isn't easy, but she's closer to finding an inner calm to match her outer cool.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Anderman
March 23, 2008

The view out of the living room window at Joan Baez's house is a Northern California dreamscape: nothing eye-popping or panoramic. Just a sliver of low green hills in the distance, a cluster of oak trees in the yard, and an elegant tangle of branches that have been woven into the walls of a high, sheltered deck. It's not so much about grand statement, this vista. Just a little slice of serenity.

"I think I would do well to get out more often," Baez says. "But it's so easy to sit here."

It's early January. A torrential rainstorm has hit the Bay Area, and Baez, wrapped in layers of wool and flannel, is nestled on a couch in the four-room home in Woodside that she shares with her dog. The house is surprising - small and seriously modest. It's hardly the hippie-chic abode or granola-luxe lifestyle to which many '60s stars have retreated.

Baez's cropped hair is now sprinkled with more salt than pepper, but her body is as slim and toned as a teenager's. She's cool yet cordial, tending to a fire with fresh logs and to a visitor with nuts and chocolates. A stone Buddha rests on the mantel. Buddhists, Baez says, "are way more on the ball than any other religious types. I think it's the intelligence factor mixed with the inner-knowledge factor. They're always giggling."

Baez giggles, too - more than you might imagine of the folk singer whose dour image inspired a Saturday Night Live skit about a long-running game show called "Make Joan Baez Laugh." And despite her claim to being an incorrigible homebody, Baez regularly abandons her beloved home and the rural community where she's lived for 35 years - mainly to play music. Baez has recently returned from Nashville, where she's recording her 24th studio album. The country-rock musician Steve Earle, an outspoken political activist, is producing the record.

But this week, Baez will be here, in Cambridge, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Harvard Square institution Club Passim. She'll perform a concert at Sanders Theatre and participate in a public interview at the folk music club where she began her own career a half-century ago, when it was located a few blocks away on Mt. Auburn Street and known as Club 47. Baez just turned 67. So many numbers, and they add up fast.

"Crazily long" is how Baez describes her career. Unlike most of her contemporaries, though, she doesn't marvel at how swiftly the years have flown by. In fact, time seems to be slowing down in Baez's world.

Where once there was a rush to rallies and protests, there are now hours of meditation. Spearheading campaigns and jump-starting organizations has taken a back seat to spending time with her mother and son. Baez's 94-year-old mother, Joan, widely known as "Big Joan," lives in a cottage on Baez's property. (Her father died last year.) Photos of her 38-year-old son, Gabriel Harris, and his young family, who live a couple hours north of here, are pinned to the walls in Baez's office.

"My family got gypped during the '60s and '70s," she says. "I wasn't there much. I didn't really become friends with my son until way later, but I didn't know that. You don't realize it until you put the brakes on."

Artists typically become legends over time, as their gifts deepen and their contributions amass into an extraordinary body of work. Baez was anointed almost instantly, thanks to a confluence of politics and culture that transformed the Boston University dropout into a national icon before her adolescence had ended.

Shortly after moving in 1958 from the Bay Area to Belmont - her father, Albert Baez, a physicist, had accepted a position at MIT - Baez sang onstage at Club 47. It was her first public performance outside of high school dances and assemblies. She was a thoroughly neurotic teenager (her words), in love with a Harvard student and in love with ballads. "I was very nervous. I don't remember how it had been advertised, but it had, and I ended up on that little foot-high stage with my mother, my father, my younger sister [watching], and somebody who'd wandered in off the street," Baez recalls. "I was waiting for my boyfriend to show up and was totally preoccupied watching to see whether he was going to come fill out the audience. I was mortified."

Word traveled about the young singer with the clarion voice. Baez was invited back to sing the following week, and the room was nearly full. Offered a weekly gig on Tuesdays at the club, her repertoire and audience grew rapidly. "She was as good offstage as she was on," says Betsy Siggins, executive director of Passim, who met Baez during their freshman year at BU. "Going to a restaurant with her was always an activity, and very little of it was about eating. She was a force. She just loved being the center of attention." Six weeks into the fall quarter, Baez's drama teacher offered to pass the less-than-attentive student if she brought in her guitar and performed for the class. Several months later, banjo player and songwriter Bob Gibson invited Baez to sing with him on a pair of spirituals at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Both Baez's performance and the audience's reaction were, by all accounts, explosive.

"And that was it," says Baez. "Bang." She was 18.

Baez had been exposed to social activism as a child - she remembers attending political meetings and demonstrations with her parents, who raised their three daughters in a Quaker home. She met Gandhian scholar Ira Sandperl, who would become her mentor, at a Quaker meeting. The idea of nonviolence, she says, "was like a vaccine that took immediately." Soon after her musical star began to rise, Pete Seeger invited Baez to a SANE rally for nuclear disarmament, where she watched Seeger get pelted with eggs. "It was there before the folk songs," Baez says of her social and political awareness, "and it was like an old friend." She sang about civil rights, free speech, the Vietnam War. She did more, too, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and standing with Cesar Chavez, protesting the death sentence, pressing for free speech, and cofounding the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in the Carmel Valley.

Baez's name was synonymous with political activism in the '60s and '70s, and her sober, ringing soprano was the soundtrack. Then times changed. And Baez had to, as well. "The end of the war in Vietnam is when it happened. You wake up in the morning, and the path is not defined for you by the fact of that war."

Still, Baez made a seamless transition from protest folk to more contemporary singer-songwriter fare. An accomplished interpreter, she had started writing her own material - not so much from the pressing need to unburden her soul but because, Baez matter-of-factly reports, "somewhere along the way someone must have said 'Why don't you write your own song?' When it was best, it just flowed. When it was difficult, it was too difficult, and I didn't want to bother."

Her biggest-selling album, Diamonds & Rust, was released in 1975. But after that Baez's career entered a murky period. She began a steep commercial decline. Pressured from without and within to remain viable in the marketplace, Baez made three unmemorable albums of polished, pop-flavored fare in the late '70s and then took a nearly decade-long break from the recording studio. "I think like anybody who goes through that dip in a career which is just a change of context all around you, I thought, 'What's happening? What's the matter with everybody? Why don't they know my songs?' And I don't think anybody knows it's coming. It was in the late 1980s when I woke up in the middle of the night, I literally sat up in bed, and I said to myself, 'Why am I making this album if nobody's going to hear it except my family and best friends?'

"There was a problem, but I didn't see it. Or want to see it. What I didn't like was being a legend and only a legend."

The inability to see clearly or to process reality with some measure of self-awareness is a notion that comes up repeatedly in conversation about Baez's younger years. The calm, commanding folk singer needed therapy just to get from one march to the next, she says, without falling apart. The peaceful exterior was just that: a facade.

On the inside, Baez was "a nervous wreck" - suffering from fears and phobias and, despite being surrounded by admirers and handlers, without a dependable support system. In 1968, she had married draft resister David Harris, Gabriel's father, now a journalist and author. The marriage lasted five years. Prior to that, Baez was famously involved with Bob Dylan, whom she brought to Club 47 on several occasions. "I was dragging him around everywhere in those days," says Baez, who enthusiastically introduced a then-unknown Dylan to her audience. Her description makes him sound like a homeless puppy - "That's a very good way of putting it," she laughs, "a very, very talented puppy" - but she declines to comment further on their relationship. "When I had a choice to do that documentary [Martin Scorsese's biopic Bob Dylan: No Direction Home] I said yes so I would never have to deal with it again."

Though she never remarried, Baez has been romantically linked with men and women. Years ago, Baez, who is currently unattached, was quoted as saying it was easy for her to have a relationship with 10,000 people but hard to relate to just one, and when asked if that still holds true, she nods. "That audience of 10,000 may be 3,000 now, but it's still better than one-on-one. A lot of people have intimacy issues, and being famous from the age of 18 didn't help any. You think anything's replaceable. 'I'll just get another friend.' It's been a very long process."

BAEZ'S PROCESS - BOTH MUSICAL AND personal - was jump-started in the 1990s. She began working in earnest on what she calls her "inside self," through therapy and meditation, when her younger sister grew ill; Mimi Baez Farina died of cancer in 2001. In recent years, Baez has grown closer to her older sister, Pauline, with whom she's had a distant relationship. Her father, as well, "was somewhere else," she says, but adds that the two made peace before his death.

Baez began recording and performing last decade with contemporary singer-songwriters - Dar Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Richard Shindell - and in 2003 released Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, a striking album with songs by Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter, and Steve Earle. "It's a very big deal if you're a songwriter and Joan Baez sings one of your songs," says Earle. "She's one of a handful of people who invented my job."

"I don't know where my career would be without Joan. But I also don't know who I would be without Joan," notes Williams. "She's protective and gracious and compassionate and funny. I've seen people who let the politics become their identity, and they burn out or become irrelevant. Joan did it right. She infused the activism with herself."

The mentoring has been a mutual endeavor, Baez insists. "I feel like I got as much from all those people as they ever got from me: their songs, their presence, their youth."

While she remains a polarizing political figure, the topical songs with which Baez will forever be linked - songs about peace and freedom and human rights - are newly relevant. Her audience has been expanding in recent years, in direct proportion, Baez believes, to dissatisfaction with the current administration. "People are looking for safe haven, and I know I represent all these things to all those people," she says. "I walk onstage and I don't have to say much of anything."

The legend of Joan Baez is untouchable. And yet she doesn't enjoy the reverence reserved for the legendary songwriters - Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon - whose music has become part of the 20th-century canon. Again, as she has with her family, Baez seems to have made peace with the sometimes disappointing twists and humbling turns - and found some comfort where she's landed. "This new album wasn't designed for anything other than beauty," Baez says. "I said to my manager, 'You mean we're not trying to recruit 13-year-olds?' That's over. I don't have to worry anymore."

She still performs regularly, but she ascends the pulpit less frequently these days. In 2004, she joined the short West Coast leg of film director Michael Moore's "Slacker Uprising Tour" in advance of the national election. Recently she's lent support to opponents of capital punishment and backers of a California community farm. "When something feels absolutely appropriate for me in every way, if I can do it without traveling to Yugoslavia or Baghdad, I'll go," she says. "But, yes, my personal priorities have shifted."

So has her voice - from pure and bell-like to a lower, more-textured instrument. Baez offers to play a couple of final mixes from her forthcoming album, and we sit down at the computer in her office, which she claims is the best sound system in the house. There's a stack of books on the desk: Trauma and Recovery, Simply Organized, and A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. Baez cues up two songs, Eliza Gilkyson's "Rose of Sharon" and "God Is God" - one of three songs Steve Earle wrote for the record. The truth is, she sounds better. There's roughness where once there were only smooth surfaces, but the nicks and pocks in her voice are where experience lives, and Baez's interpretive gifts have deepened along with her tones.

Aging, though, has taken its toll.

"Gravity's a bugger," she says. "Vocal cords calcify at both ends, and to keep them working, you have to practice all the time. I thought I was Miss Natural Talent and would never have to do anything. Now I'm coached. I have to keep things lubricated. I can't go three nights without feeling the results, and suddenly I realized I don't want to. If it's a choice between the third night and a whole heap of money or sitting by a fountain in Italy, I'd rather sit by the fountain."

"So that," Baez says with a bittersweet smile, "is what I've started doing."

Joan Anderman, a music writer for the Globe, last wrote for the magazine about singer James Taylor. E-mail her at anderman@globe.com.

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