Joan Baez is one of the leading protest singers of the past 50 years and one of the most outspoken activists on behalf of enough causes to fill a notebook, including peace, civil rights, women’s rights and human rights.
But one thing she has traditionally declined to do is endorse candidates for political office on any level. In 2008, though, she broke with tradition to throw her support behind presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“It’s just that this was a statesman and a highly intelligent human being,” Baez says, explaining her decision.
“I knew I would no longer be embarrassed by our president. I think it’s just odd for me, feeling that the cohesiveness that we needed in the world at that moment turned out was a black candidate for president, not a songwriter, not somebody from the street, not a Martin Luther King, but a man running for office. We had been waiting, all of us, for something to happen. And we didn’t know what would rise from the rubble. Something had to. And people thought who was going to be writing this song, who’s going to bring things together, who’s going to give us a sense of identity again? And it turned out to be this man.”
The 2008 presidential election, of course, was historic in several ways, including the fact that an African American was elected to the highest office in the United States.
It was also seen by many as historic in terms of voter participation and interest, with several ethnic groups going to the polls in unprecedented numbers and helping to shift the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans.
Baez agrees and noted that the impact of election and a more engaged electorate will be felt beyond America’s borders.
“It was a sea change, an international sea change,” Baez says. “And the world, in a sense, will never be the same. Some things continue in their sad and miserable state. But everything shifted somewhat, and in a sense there’s something to be taken advantage of in that shift. For some people, it will always be that much of an advantage, that much better. For others, I think there’s just that much wiggle room to try and better things. And then for some, the hell kind of continues. Maybe it’s up to the rest of us who have that much more wiggle room to try and work on behalf of those who still can’t wiggle.”
Aside from doing her part to better the lives of others, Baez has plenty of musical activities to keep her busy, beginning with a summer tour of the United States.
The shows will find Baez performing with her usual backing band of John Doyle (guitar/mandola), Dirk Powell (banjo, mandolin, accordion) and Todd Phillips (bass, mandolin), with her son, Gabe, joining in on percussion.
Baez is touring in support of her latest CD, Day After Tomorrow, which has received widespread acclaim as one of the finest CDs in a career that stretches back to the early 1960s.
Baez says she usually does four or five songs from Day After Tomorrow and there will be plenty of room for her to vary the set list from night to night.
“I have a skeleton of a set list,” Baez says, noting that Doyle often is the person suggesting different songs to swap into the set. “He’ll be fishing around in my old stuff or finding something he loves [and] just grab it. And often in the same night we’ll try to place it
[in the set] and we’ll throw something else out and put it in. If it flies, then we’ll make the switch.”
Day After Tomorrow, with its rootsy, mainly acoustic sound, is being seen as a return to the stripped down folk sound that defined Baez’s early — and influential — albums, including her 1960 selftitled debut album, her 1961 follow-up, Joan Baez, Vol. 2 and 1962’s In Concert, Part 1 that brought Baez into the folk music spotlight.
Her early records, as well as notable later releases such as Farewell, Angelina (1965), Any Day Now (1968) and Diamonds and Rust (1975) established Baez as one of the most important figures in American music, and as her career became intertwined with that of one-time boyfriend Bob Dylan, she helped lead a resurgence of folk music during the early 1960s.
Some of the credit for the rootsy, primarily acoustic approach on Day After Tomorrow can go to the producer of the CD, Steve Earle, who of course is an accomplished songwriter and recording artist in his own right and no shrinking violet when it comes to sharing his opinions on issues of the day.
Baez has known Earle for years and has also toured with him, but the idea of having him produce an album actually came from her manager.
“My manager says ‘I had lunch with Steve Earle the other day. What would you think about (him producing)?” Baez recalls. “I said ‘Whoopie!’ I didn’t stop to think about much of that either. I just knew his music and knew him enough to know that it just felt like the right match. He was this earthy dude. I knew he was as scratchy as I was pure, as far as the work went. And that was a perfect combination.”
Baez says there wasn’t much advance planning about what kind of album Day After Tomorrow would become.
“I don’t even know if we discussed it in those terms,” Baez says. “I think what we did was we just started singing. There were two or three of them (songs) that we liked a lot.”
In the end, Baez recorded three songs by Earle (“God Is God,” “I Am A Wanderer” and “Jericho Road”), as well as songs from such contemporary tunesmiths as Eliza Gilkyson (“Rose Of Sharon”), Patty Griffin (“Mary) and Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett (“Scarlet Tide”).
Baez says working with Earle was one of the main reasons she looks back at Day After Tomorrow as one of the most memorable album projects of her long career.
“It has to be Steve [Earle],” she said. “It has to [also] be the choice of songs, and I’m not really sure how that happens. We sensed it as it was happening. We sensed it. And I know a lot of it had to do with Steve. And then just his production and it’s the style and we worked the same way together — fast — his choice of the musicians and the decision that it was going to be as earthy as it was.”
On the Bill:
Joan Baez plays the Chautauqua Auditorium on Saturday, July 10.
Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $45. 900 Baseline Road, 303-442-3282.