Folk legend and activist Joan Baez is 82 years old. And while she's moved away from music, her creative brilliance continues to shine, most recently through a new book of her line drawings, Am I Pretty When I Fly? The New Yorker's Amanda Petrusich, one of my favorite contemporary music critics, interviewed Baez about art, political advocacy, her mattress in a tree, and hope:
That's hard to hear—I sometimes try to comfort myself by saying, "Oh, America has always been fraught and divided and violent; this is simply the latest version." But, of course, it's worse. It feels as though we're tumbling backwards.
We are. I wouldn't try to talk yourself down too much, because then you'd be lying. It's worse than anything I could have imagined. It really is. And the rate, the speed. It's about propaganda, it's about lying, it's about business, it's about money, it's about power. [The linguist and cognitive scientist] George Lakoff wrote a whole book about how liberals don't know how to talk. "Build a wall," "lock her up"—three words, and you remember them. Biden is lovely, he talks for an hour, and you don't remember anything he's saying.
The hopeful thing about Nashville now, about the Tennessee Three, is that it feels a little different to me. Although ever since George Floyd, each time one of these things happens again, you have to wonder, Is this really gonna change hearts and minds? For the movement to sustain itself, people need to organize around it. It won't sustain on its own; it can't sustain on its own. The Tennessee Three have already taken a risk. These kids who are lying out at the Capitol are taking a risk, and so are their teachers. So there are examples already. Somehow, if we can build on that—maybe it means mom-to-mom? Maybe women are the main part of this; I don't know. But I would encourage anyone invested in any of these situations to find like-minded people and do something. The risk for you is to knock on a door and say, "Are you with me?" Maybe you think whoever answers is gonna say no, or think you're an ass. But you have to do it. Pete Seeger embodied risk-taking and social change in music. He paid a high price. He wasn't allowed on the radio or TV for years. Back then, there were a couple of radio stations and three TV channels; folk music was still countercultural. And then because of the times, because of civil rights and Vietnam, it became culture.
I have this vision of the sixties—maybe more of a fantasy—as a time when music could really change things. It coalesced social movements; it empowered and encouraged people to fight. Did it feel that way to you at the time? Does it feel that way to you now?
I was really young, but I was a little bit different from my cohort. My family became Quakers, so I was brought up with a mind-set that a lot of my friends didn't understand. We're talking about how human beings are more important than nationalism, more important than a flag. I had that as my foundation. I was smart enough to know that "We Shall Overcome" didn't mean in my lifetime. You can't expect that one march is gonna do it all. I have a memory of this young kid, sometime in the early eighties, saying to me, "Man, you had it all back then." And it was idealized, you know? He almost said, "You had the war." If he had been sixteen back then, his life would have been at stake. But he didn't think of that—just the Beatles and Bob Dylan, you know? The most important thing he said was, "You had the glue, man." A kind of glue that we don't have now, or not yet—there's a word for that meantime, when this thing happened, and you're waiting for it to happen again. It's like some little bud that has been underground, waiting to come up. We don't know what that's gonna be. It could be Nashville.
"Joan Baez Is Still Doing Beautiful, Cool Stuff" (The New Yorker)