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After six decades performing, folk legend Joan Baez is saying farewell to music with a tour this summer. But before setting off, she sat down with Jeffrey Brown to talk about her long career in music and political activism, and how she’s looking to younger generations to carry the torch forward.
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.
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. .
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.
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?
This is the last.
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.
I'm not as young as I was yesterday.
Right. Are you feeling it as you prepare to go?
Feeling my age?
Mm-hmm. Stuff hurts. You know. You're laughing.
But you're still going to get out there on the bus?
I'm going to get on that bus and hope it doesn't completely break my whole system.
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.
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."
The earlier song was a traditional folk ballad of a wronged woman. The new one captured on this music video has a new twist.
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?
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.
Which, ladies, doesn't mean you have to assassinate the guy. You just don't have to let him treat you like that anymore.
Baez says she's not a nostalgic person, but she has been going back to listen to her younger self.
Yes, I have been listening to that voice. It's hard to connect it with myself now. And it…
You have been listening to it, just…
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.
And when you look back at that person who had that voice?
No, not ambitious, really.
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?
Do you feel like the moment shaped you? Or were you and others kind of shaping it?
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.
These days, Baez stays active in political causes, but warns people against romanticizing the '60s. She calls herself a realist.
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.
Be in denial? That's how you feel?
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.
She looks to young people to speak up and take action.
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?
Baez has a new creative outlet now.
He's about two-thirds done.
Painting portraits that once again mix politics with art. She calls her subjects, people like Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem, mischief-makers.
This is the only kind of, I know what I'm going to do and retire kind of thing.
It's probably not going to be fixing my roses, although that'll be part of it.
You just used that R-word, to retire. Is that what you're doing?
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?
Until it lost its horror.
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.
What a voice, still, Joan Baez.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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