On July 28th, Joan Baez will walk offstage at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, and wrap up her career as a live performer almost exactly 60 years after making her debut at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. The show will be the culmination of a farewell tour that’s kept her on the road for the past year. Each night she’s played a cross-section of songs from her entire career, including classics like “Diamonds and Rust,” “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” “No More Auction Block” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
About a week before playing her final New York concert at the Beacon Theatre, taking place May 1st, she called up Rolling Stone to talk about the tour, why it’s ending in Europe, her absence from Woodstock 50 and what she plans on doing with her life once she heads back home.
Is the tour going well? Are you enjoying it?
I am very much. It’s going well. People should quit more often [laughs]. There’s a different kind of excitement at the show and that’s been fun.
I’m sure each night feels different than previous tours because you know it’s your last night in any given city.
I would say that most of the time I block that out because when I feel the sadness part, then it feels profound. The relief and the joy are also profound, but I think you tend to hide the sorrows as long as possible and it’s not good for the system.
Are there moments when they still hit you?
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Periodically. It usually arrives in some camouflaged form where I suddenly feel angry when they isn’t any reason to feel angry and then you just sit quietly with it and let the layers evaporate. In the end, it always gets down to sorrow. But I would say that’s been a minimal part of this tour. I love my bus family. That’s what I’ll miss most.
How is your voice holding out?
This vocal box has been extraordinary. It’s holding out OK and I don’t want to try and use it forever. I know some people strain to sing until they’re 100 and then drop dead on the stage, but that’s never been my vision of how I’d end the career. I like this voice. It’s nothing to do with the one I had 50 years ago, nothing at all, but I’m enjoying it and it’s also, at the same time, quite difficult to keep up.
This would be a rough schedule for anyone at any age.
[Laughs] That’s true. I need to keep reminding myself that maybe it’s a good idea to ease up on my body a little bit.
You’re going to Europe soon. Are those going to be your last shows?
Your last show ever will be in Spain?
Yeah. Well, I don’t know if its the last show. It’s the last show of the last tour. And may very well be the last show.
Why end it in Europe?
It’s sort of a “Why not?” Europe has been faithful to me, in some ways, at times when the States has not kept up. I wouldn’t blame that on anybody expect my own self and my own career and when I let it kind of go and when I worked hard. At any rate, I love Europe and my public over there. It’ll bring a nice closure.
Are you thinking yet about what the last song will be that you’ll play at that show?
I don’t know. Last song in Spain? Probably “We Shall Not Be Moved” in Spanish, “No Nos Moveran.” It’s a good encore.
How do you think you’ll feel when you walk offstage at that show and it’s done?
I really can’t predict that. My behavior now is so unpredictable. I am going to ask for a few rounds of champagne.
Are you looking forward to the Beacon Theatre show on May 1st?
Absolutely. I love that place. And we’ve changed the show enough so it feels fresh.
Do you think that night will feel extra special since it’s your last night playing New York and you have so much history here?
When I do think about that, yeah. Then it effects me deeply and I want to give it my level best.
Are you able to remember your first show in New York?
My first show in New York was in the Jewish Community Center. I think that was the first one. That would have to be in ’60 or ’61. Long before you were born.
Do you have fond memories of that show?
Mostly those shows in the very beginning were so riddled with stage fright that I don’t remember much else. It was just a task getting me out. I would ask my friends, “Just push me. Give me a big shove and it’ll get me on the stage. And then when I start I’m pretty much OK.”
We’re approaching the 60 year anniversary of your debut at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.
Do you find that to be a strange thought?
I have this knack of disassociating. So it helps me to see that show as it was, off in the distance, this 18-, 19-year-old girl trembling off the side of the stage and wondering if these 13,000 people, which I thought was the largest audience in the history of the world, whether they’d like me or not. There wasn’t any guarantee at that point which direction my singing would go, my life would go. There was just that moment and I wanted that moment to be spectacular. And thanks to Bob Gibson and his invitation and his general openness with me, that moment turned into a magic one.
Did they approach you about playing Woodstock 50?
You didn’t want to do it?
Not really. I sort of wanted to for a while and then those things get very murky about who is playing where and who is playing what and it was too complicated to even get involved in, so I just said “no.” My instincts all along were “no.”
You can’t recreate that first one, so why try?
Thank you for saying it for me. That’s exactly it.
I imagine it was the same for the Newport Folk Festival. You could have gone there to celebrate your 60th anniversary.
It changed so drastically that it wasn’t even the pretense of trying to be what it was at the beginning. It was new acts … I think nobody was pretending. I remember going back at one point and the Indigo Girls were there. Well, that’s a whole new world.
What’s going to fill up your days after you retire?
I’m happier with the phrase “retire from touring” rather than “retire,” because for most people that has sort of “yuck.” I can’t deal with that as a word. I think that the main thing for me will be the painting because it’s pretty well established by now that I’m heading off to do that. That’s not why I decided to stop the touring, but when I look at it, I think, “Oh, boy, this is what I get to do now without the interruptions.” I’ve never taken much time to do nothing, which I think is pretty important, especially at my age, and sort of contemplating what is coming. In this culture, we spend most of our time trying to avoid it. I would like to have more of a Buddhist approach.
Your parents both lived very, very long lives. There’s no reason to think you’re going to be slowing down any time soon.
[Laughs] Please! When my mom turned 100, we were all trying to plan her birthday party because we always had. One year, she wanted only desserts and I swear there must have been 90 people there and she took a bite of everything. For her 100th I said, “Mom, what do you want to do for your 100th?” She said, “Drop dead.” One week later, she went. One week after her birthday. So she orchestrated it. I hope I can orchestrate something like that.
So you weren’t tempted to do a big, final concert or go back to Boston where you started and bring it full circle?
Not really, though I’m delighted to be playing Port Chester where I’ve never been. That’s not a place you would expect [for my last American concert], but I sort of like that about it.
Do you think you’ll keep recording, or are you done making music?
That would depend on the voice, really. Also my interest. At the moment, I’m not interested in learning new songs. I haven’t written for 25 years. The energy starts going in another direction, so stopping this forward movement has more to do with wanting to go in a different direction. I kind of doubt I’ll record anything. It would take over a year to collect the songs, mostly because I don’t write them. I think my interest level by that time will be too low.
But you might still appear at benefit shows in the future? You aren’t opposed to that?
Probably, as long as the voice does hold up. I’ll probably do some of that if it makes sense.
How hard was it to make a set list on this tour since you have so many songs to draw from?
It’s not a problem at all. They morph. If I look back 10 years ago, it would be a very different set. But they just morph on their own. What did we do recently? We dropped “Joe Hill” and put in two other ones. We have a show that is coming up with us from Selma. We started this tour and I realized I wanted to put in things that really defined my years back then, Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery. They are wonderful. The woman that sings with me, Grace Stumberg, she now sings the notes that I can’t and they are magnificent. This show has its own little theme and I’m going to bring it with me all the way to Port Chester.
Are you sad that you’re ending at such a difficult time in American history?
Yeah. That is probably the only thing that made me think twice. But at the same time, somebody else has got to do it. I’ll do what I can. And actually, the painting has all been done about mischief makers, people who have made social change, usually against all odds, through nonviolence. That’s why I started painting and it seems to have been going on for a few years without stop. I recently started doing upside-down drawings. They are really interesting. Some wires cross in your brain when you do that. I draw them upside down and then I turn them over to see what they really look like and then a caption will come. I just did, I guess, 125 of them over the past couple of months. I want to make a book out of them and have an exhibit. About a third of them are political.
Are you hopeful about the future of this country?
No [laughs]. You’d have to be crazy to be hopeful.
Are you disappointed by your country, then?
No. We should have been smarter in knowing that there are these think tanks going on for 50 years and the progressives didn’t have an equivalent to that and didn’t know how to talk that language. I don’t mean lie, but having clever propaganda. We are left in the dust right now and I don’t know if disappointed is the word. I’d say “overwhelmed” because nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fuckin’ awful.
Or somebody in charge of the country this stupid and pathetically narcissistic.
Anyone with half a brain, this is what we wind up talking about whenever we get on the phone, our mutual desperation. Clinging to somebody who has the same views is really important right now. That’s another reason the shows are wonderful right now. People have come out of their hiding spaces to go to what I call a safe haven, which is the concert.
Do the crowds seem extra emotional since they know it’s their last time seeing you?
They get very teary. “Are you sure you’re not coming back?” Now that I’m sure, it’s easier to put a hand on a shoulder and hug someone and say, “Yeah. You’ve got to carry it on for me.”
Most farewell tours in music history are followed a few years later by comeback tours. That doesn’t seem like it’ll be the case with you.
They aren’t usually quitting when they are nearly 80! [Laughs] So there’s that.
But do you feel 80?
I feel young. I think my body betrays me more than it did five years ago — well, of course it does. All people my age start talking and end up talking about your age. At a certain point, the time it takes to maintain the body and the spirit and the mind is just a huge amount of time. And it’s not something that is optional anymore. Stretching is not optional.
They just announced that a documentary about the Rolling Thunder Revue is coming to Netflix in June.
[Laughs] What about it?
Are you a part of it?
I think so. I think I was interviewed for it at some point. Honest to God, I can’t remember. I imagine so. I was a big part of that tour.
Are you looking forward to that documentary?
[Laughs] I didn’t look forward to the original film [Renaldo and Clara]. I thought it was one of the worst films ever made.
But this is about the music.
Oh. Well, I’ll probably go see it.
Do you have fond memories of that tour?
The first tour, I absolutely do. I do. I think its worth nothing that I didn’t miss a single night of Bob’s performances. They were just wonderful.
But that second leg in 1976?
It just wasn’t that fun anymore. Anyone who was on it would agree with that.
I’ll leave it at that. Thanks so much for doing this.