In a voice as clear and unwavering as when she sang “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington, Joan Baez opened the San Francisco Women’s March last month onstage with her acoustic guitar and a version of “No Nos Moveran,” the Spanish version of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” She also dedicated Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” to Barack and Michelle Obama and declared: “Women, we need to be empathetic when there is no empathy. We need to be kind when kindness is not at the forefront.”
The 76-year-old folk singer, who came to symbolize Sixties protest music with her activism in the Civil Rights Movement, withholding 60 percent of her taxes to protest the Vietnam War, and performing alongside Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, among many other things, caused a small commotion wherever she marched in January. “A lot of young people don’t recognize me, so they’re scratching their heads,” Baez says, by phone from her Woodside, California, home. “I don’t say, ‘Ask your parents.’ I say, ‘Go Google me.’ These connections get made.” In a half-hour interview, she discussed protest movements then and now and her feelings about the new president.
We have some negative stuff to discuss, but let’s start on a positive note: Congratulations on your recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Well, thank you very much. Honestly, I never thought about it because I don’t think much about awards stuff, but it’s an honor and it’s kind of rare, so it’ll be interesting just connecting my music back in the day – it’s just preceding the rock & roll boom, because we were certainly intertwined.
You recently opened the San Francisco Women’s March during a thunderstorm. I was wondering how many times you’ve performed in the pouring rain.
Actually, probably quite a few! I’m generally protected by the stage.
There’s a lot to say about President Trump, which we’ll get to, but is it fair to start by saying he’s uniting the left in protest?
This feeling is something people have been waiting for. It’s something you can’t just pull out of a hat. The stars have to line up, so to speak.
How would you compare the recent protests to the ones you led and attended at the beginning of your career?
I was struck by how many really young people [attended]. When I look back at the civil rights and peace movements, was it really this young? I was just writing a letter to these sweet kids from Palo Alto High School; they did a demonstration and they walked to Palo Alto, and two other kids walked to another point and they met. Somebody had a sign: “This is not an anti-Trump rally – this is about caring.” They were just saying to each other, “We need to take care of each other in these times.” That spilled over into my experience with the Women’s March in San Francisco. A lot of really good will – the right wing was really hard put to come up with something to grumble about. All these women and they could only come up with one who said something stupid about blowing up the White House. That’s all [Fox News’ Sean] Hannity could come up with.
Did you get the sense many people at the Women’s March had never protested before?
It’s courtesy of Trump and his antics that people realize what we’re up against, and it’s pushed them into a new place. I got a message from my light man – I don’t think he’s ever been political, he said, “Jesus Christ, I don’t know what to do. I guess I’ll take Lucy – that’s his 3-year-old – to the airport, and just get up and do it.” That’s the first time you feel you’ll be supported. You won’t be by yourself. That’s a feeling people have kind of yearned for, or never had.
How important is music to today’s resistance? Is it as central as it was in the Sixties, when some of the most famous protest anthems of all time were coming out?
There’s not enough right now. There needs to be more. It’s terribly important, because that’s what keeps the spirit. Carping and shouting, as much as it gets stuff off your chest in front of 100,000, you really need something uplifting. That’s hard to do in a speech if you’re angry. The primary example, of course, would be [Martin Luther] King. In all the darkness he dealt with he brought out the light, and music does that. The problem right now is we have no anthem. We have one! It’s written by Josh Ritter. As soon as we piece it together, I’m going to try it out on the crowd – it’s called “I Carry the Flame.” All I have to do is get Josh to rewrite the verses so it’ll be simpler. That is the first possibility I’ve heard for the movement so we don’t have to keep redoing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome” forever. We need new things. … The Occupy [Wall Street] movement needed an anthem and didn’t have one. We need fresh songs.
How do you choose how to focus your activism? The immigration ban, the wall, defunding Planned Parenthood, the pipelines – he issues are coming so quickly.
You know, their strategy’s working when they have us spinning so fast we don’t know which thing to latch onto. Plus they cheat and lie and stuff, which is something progressives aren’t really good at, and which I don’t suggest. People have to grab what moves them the most.
What’s your advice for activists in this situation?
I’d just say keep your eyes on the prize. My ex-husband, before he spent time in prison for draft resistance, gave these amazing speeches. He said, “If there’s one difference you could make in the world … if we all cared, our lives would change.” I sing that song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and it ends with “coming to carry me,” “carry you” and “carry us,” and I say, “even Donald.” Because he is a human being and I would fight for his right to not be executed, if it came down to that. He’s a human, he’s just all screwed up. … But he has a knack, and it’s vicious and it’s horrible. He doesn’t care about anything but himself and money and power. We’re in for a bumpy ride, which has already started.
Any closing words for the resistance?
In a total lack of empathy on the other side, we need to make up for that, double-time, [with] our own empathy. That’s the only way we’re going to make it through. And fight. Over these last 40 years there have been seldom times I can say, “Get out there, you have each other.” You can’t fake that. And courage. Courage is contagious.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2017 will honor Pearl Jam, Tupac, Journey, Yes, Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra and Nile Rodgers.