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Folk legend Joan Baez reflects on a life in music and activism


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: Joan Baez has been a major voice in American folk music and politics since the 1960s.

Jeffrey Brown visited Baez at her Northern California home recently, as she wraps up her career with a farewell tour.

It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, our look at American creators.

Jeffrey Brown: On her current tour, Joan Baez sings "Deportees," a song about migrant workers she's been performing for decades, a familiar theme, with new relevance, and a familiar voice, even as it's changed, from her famous soprano voice, with its three-octave range.

It's part of the reason she told me this will be her last tour. .

Joan Baez: My first vocal coach, a very smart man -- I was in my 30s -- I said, "When will I know it's time to quit singing?" He said, "Your voice will tell you."

And it has.

Jeffrey Brown: Baez has been making music in public since the late 1950s, renowned for reworkings of traditional ballads, as folk music rose to popularity.

Her first album came out in 1960. From early on, political activism mixed with the music. She sang at the 1963 March on Washington, against the Vietnam War, and on behalf of many other causes over the years.

But this is the last?

Joan Baez: This is the last.

Jeffrey Brown: But when we met recently at her Northern California home, as she prepared to go back out on tour, the 78-year-old had more down-to-earth concerns.

Joan Baez: I'm not as young as I was yesterday.

Jeffrey Brown: Right. Are you feeling it as you prepare to go?

Joan Baez: Feeling my age?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Joan Baez: Always.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Joan Baez: Mm-hmm. Stuff hurts. You know. You're laughing.

Jeffrey Brown: But you're still going to get out there on the bus?

Joan Baez: I'm going to get on that bus and hope it doesn't completely break my whole system.

Jeffrey Brown: Last year, Baez released an album titled "Whistle Down the Wind," 10 songs by writers she admires.It was her first recording in almost 10 years and, she says, also her last.

Joan Baez: Conceptually, it was like an echo to the first album. Josh Ritter wrote a folk song, folk song, folk song, "Silver Blade." And the first album had "Silver Dagger."

Jeffrey Brown: The earlier song was a traditional folk ballad of a wronged woman. The new one captured on this music video has a new twist.

Joan Baez: In the first song, "Silver Dagger," the young maiden, her mother's threatening her, don't get married. The guys are all like your father. And she caves, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Joan Baez: And in the new one, not at all. She rides off with the guy she falls in love with. He turns out to be a rotten guy, and he rapes her in his castle.

And instead of her crawling away, to never again have anything to do with a man, she stabs him in the back with a silver blade.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Joan Baez: Which, ladies, doesn't mean you have to assassinate the guy. You just don't have to let him treat you like that anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: Baez says she's not a nostalgic person, but she has been going back to listen to her younger self.

Joan Baez: Yes, I have been listening to that voice. It's hard to connect it with myself now. And it...

Jeffrey Brown: You have been listening to it, just...

Joan Baez: Just to listen to it now, because it's brilliant, and it's one of a kind. And I can say that because my job is maintenance delivery. And the rest of it really is a gift.

Jeffrey Brown: And when you look back at that person who had that voice?

Joan Baez: Ballsy.

Jeffrey Brown: Ballsy, yes?

Joan Baez: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Ambitious?

Joan Baez: No, not ambitious, really.

Jeffrey Brown: No?

Joan Baez: Not for myself. Probably very ambitious about the politics, trying to get something done, and reading everything and, being on top of it, and in that sense, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: Do you feel like the moment shaped you? Or were you and others kind of shaping it?

Joan Baez: Well, that was a special period of time, during which this enormous amount of talent just exploded.

And one of the problems now is that people look back and they want that now. And you can't have it. I mean, you can't have a repeat. Something new has to emerge. But, yes, it formed me, and happy to say, yes, I helped form it.

Jeffrey Brown: These days, Baez stays active in political causes, but warns people against romanticizing the '60s. She calls herself a realist.

Joan Baez: We're facing a massive defeat. If not the administration, then it's global warming. I don't know whether my grandchild is going to have a life, let alone a good life.

My remedy for that is, be in denial 80 percent of the time.

Jeffrey Brown: Be in denial? That's how you feel?

Joan Baez: Yes, to just put one foot in front of the other. And you take the 20 percent and you do your daily life.

And part of that has to be, what are you going to do for everybody else? What are you going to do for the human race? And, for that, everybody has to choose. But they have to choose.

Jeffrey Brown: She looks to young people to speak up and take action.

Joan Baez: I'm not the standard-bearer. I'm not the -- out in the front of the line. The kids are doing that. They really are. And I want to support them any way that I can, because I think the kids are probably the only ones who really get it about climate change.

I really do. They look in their future and they see, do we have one?

Jeffrey Brown: Baez has a new creative outlet now.

Joan Baez: He's about two-thirds done.

Jeffrey Brown: Painting portraits that once again mix politics with art. She calls her subjects, people like Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem, mischief-makers.

Joan Baez: This is the only kind of, I know what I'm going to do and retire kind of thing.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Joan Baez: It's probably not going to be fixing my roses, although that'll be part of it.

Jeffrey Brown: You just used that R-word, to retire. Is that what you're doing?

Joan Baez: No. I have never used it before. It's sort of like saying 80. When I realized I'm going to be 80 in two years, I was just mortified. And I walked around the house saying, 80, 80, I'm going to be 80?

Joan Baez: Until it lost its horror.

Jeffrey Brown: Joan Baez is now performing in Europe on the final leg of her final tour.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Northern California.

Judy Woodruff: What a voice, still, Joan Baez.

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