Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound

Legendary American folk singer Joan Baez is heading to Australia for the first time in many, many years. The opportunity, she says, suddenly presented itself and was too good to refuse.

“My manager said to me one day, ‘What about going down to Australia again?’, and I just said, ‘Oh, goody’. That’s kind of how it’s happened. And while it may look like a pretty big tour, Australia is a big place and I really wanted to go to as many places as I could.”

Joan Baez came to fame in the early 60s as a folk singer with a very pure voice. She championed a young Bob Dylan and in 1968 released the double album Any Day Now: The Songs of Bob Dylan. She also became a political activist and a staunch campaigner for non-violence.

Now aged 72, she continues to tour and record with her last album, Day After Tomorrow, being produced by renegade musician Steve Earle. It also featured songs by contemporary artists such as Earle alongside tunes by Elvis Costello, Patti Griffin and Tom Waits. Baez was also the subject of the 2009 American Masters documentary, How Sweet the Sound.

The singer, whose Quaker father, Albert, co-invented the X-ray reflection microscope in 1948 with Stanford University professor Paul Kirkpatrick, will be accompanied on tour by multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion.

“Dirk plays something like seven different stringed instruments,” Baez reveals, “and Gabe is just great on percussion. It’s great going off touring with Gabe because moms often get to hang out with their daughters, but how often do they get to really hang out with a married son? Gabe and I also enjoy being jet-lagged together. It’s very special.

“I just try and keep my concerts a happy experience these days and say whatever it is I need to say without the preaching I used to do,” Baez quickly continues. “For instance, on my last tour I dedicated a song to the people of Turkey and one night I sang a song in Portuguese that I hadn’t sung for about 25 years for the people of Brazil.”

Are there now certain songs, such as The Band’s The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down, that you feel you have to include in a concert performance?

“As soon as you say the words ‘have to’, I think I probably wouldn’t,” Baez laughs. “But when I look around at my audience I think, ‘These people have hung around with me for so long now even if they came in midway through my career about 25 years ago’. They have been faithful to me and there are different songs they associate with me from the last 50 years. So while I myself may be tired of a few of the songs, I’m certainly not tired of singing them to those who have turned up to see me.”

The singer performed at The Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969 that had been held on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. She returned to Bethel in April of 2013 for the first time.

“And it was amazing,” Baez says. “They’ve built a new amphitheatre, but they take you in one of those golf carts to see the original stage. They also have a memorial and a really amazing museum that takes people from the 1950s through to the Civil Rights Movement and also has footage of the festival.

“I remember Woodstock as being very wet and muddy,” Baez says of the festival at which she performed for an hour from 1am on the opening night when six months pregnant with Gabriel.

“The thing about it was that having people contained like that and being all together forces them to become the best they are,” she reasons. “For example, I remember seeing a cop place his gun in his car and then make a hotdog for some guy who was stark naked and obviously on some kind of trip.

“Outside the confines of Woodstock, he would have been arrested,” she says with a laugh. “But that kind of mood just became so contagious at Woodstock that everyone just became as good a person as they could be.”

Baez, who says she now listens to anything from opera through to Willie Nelson and Ozomatli, agrees that the last decade has seen a swing back to acoustic music.

“I don’t know what it’s like in Australia but that’s definitely the case in the US,” she concludes. “When I started off it was a reaction to what we used to call bubblegum music, so maybe it’s today’s reaction to all the music reality shows on television. I think it comes from people wanting something that’s a little more real.”

Joan Baez performs at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, on Thursday, August 8 and Friday, August 9 at 8pm.


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