For Joan Baez, things have changed
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., October 16, 2003) – The image of Joan Baez on stage with a guitar strapped around her shoulders singing a traditional folk ballad, or a new song by a contemporary songwriter, or better yet, a political protest song, is one of the iconic cultural images of the last 40 years.

But behind that image lies a deep, dark secret.

“At the beginning, the stage fright almost killed me,” said the folk madonna in a recent phone interview from somewhere backstage on the road.

“I used to be plagued by phobias and panic attacks, and nobody knew about it because my public persona was quite collected,” said Baez, who performs at Mass MoCA tomorrow night in a concert that has long been sold out.

“There was a lot of time and energy and weeping that went into it,” said Baez, talking about how she coped for more than half her career with feeling sickened by the very act of getting on stage.

“You always think you’re going to skim by,” said Baez, “and then one day I just decided to deal with it. I just dove into the therapeutic work I needed to get rid of the baggage I needed to get rid of. It’s totally, completely gone now, and I never thought that would happen.”

As a result, going on tour these days is much more appealing to Baez than it was 20 or 30 years ago, when at the height of her career she was the queen of folk music. This was a time when that actually meant getting heard on the radio, as she often did with hits like her version of Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and with her own song, “Diamonds and Rust,” that chronicled her stormy, tempestuous relationship with Bob Dylan.

Baez first introduced mainstream audiences to Dylan’s songs and to the performer himself in the early 1960s – including a show at the Pittsfield Boy’s Club that locals still talk about. Introducing audiences to new songwriters and performers has always been an important part of what Baez has done. In recent years, singer-songwriter Richard Shindell has been the greatest beneficiary of Baez’s attentions; she has recorded several of his songs and he has toured with her extensively over the past few years.

On her latest album, “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar” (Koch) – her first new studio album in six years – Baez recorded songs by writers including Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Greg Brown.

“In this case, more than with the last two records, these were people who were already known, so we tried to pick songs that were under the radar,” said Baez. “Plus we’re all a little quirky.”

Baez said it remains a mystery what attracts her to a particular song.

“I’ve never really understood that,” she said. “Sometimes it becomes clear after the fact, or sometimes it’s blatant, as with a protest song or a beautiful love ballad. But there’s a whole sector of songs I might think I understand well, and I introduce them to the public in a certain way over a period of time, and then I’ve been told by the author that it has nothing to do with the song. It’s kind of a mystery, and I like it that way.”

Although she has written a handful of great songs of her own, Baez – who says she stopped writing songs 10 years ago in favor of poetry -- has always been primarily an interpreter of traditional folk songs, spirituals, and new songs by contemporary writers. Hers is an art form that seems to be dying on the vine in an era when everyone sings their own songs, whether or not they can sing or their songs are any good, or when singers who aren’t writers prefer to sing garbage.

But Baez sees a connection between then and now. “It’s the times we’re living in, but it’s sort of a parallel to when I started doing folk ballads against a backdrop of ‘How Much Is The Doggie in the Window,’ real mindless crap,” she said. “Now we have the microchip, super beyond speed, but it’s still crap.”

“The reaction against that is counterculture, and counterculture is where I’ve always felt at home. So do those whose songs I do, although some of them become a part of the mainstream for one reason or the other. But that’s not what they set out to do.

Although she hesitates to draw direct comparisons, one senses that Baez does detect a qualitative difference between today’s cadre of songwriters and those she began with – people like Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Donovan and Richard Farina.

“I don’t think you can really compare,” she said, adding, “I suppose you can with some. Some are outstandingly bright, like Shindell -- you know that you’re going to hear three songs of his that are going to be way over the radar.

“I think in general songwriters create their own little pocket, or big pocket. It’s just different now. I picked up a hitchhiker at the end of the Seventies, and he said, ‘You’re Joan Baez, do you still fingerpick?’ I laughed and said ‘Nobody does that anymore, things have changed.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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