Monday, December 5, 2011

Joan Baez

June 14, 1987
Over the Phone
New York*-San Francisco
*40 Clinton Street, NYC
for: RockBill Magazine

oan Chandos Baez continues to fight for non-violence and human rights through her organization, Humanitas, based in Menlo Park, California. Baez, who was raised a Quaker, also works with Amnesty International and has been active in the Sanctuary movement for Salvadoran refugees.
            Ms. Baez is, moreover, a beautiful woman, gifted with what Martin Luther King once called “a voice like an angel.” Critic Robert Shelton first described her singing voice as “an achingly pure soprano.” Baez’s first album in eight years, Recently, coincides with the release of her autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With.

What does Humanitas do? What are your methods for teaching non-violence?

First of all, Humanitas is not solely for teaching non-violence. I would refer you to what used to be the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, which we started in 1964, and is now the Resource Center for Non-Violence in Santa Cruz. I sort of turned it over after ten years, to a man named Scott Kennedy. For specifically non-violent education and only that, then I would send you there. At Humanitas, we do basically three things. Education in disarmament, non-violence, and human rights. They can be very small projects, educational projects, and we try to do some funding for organizations that are too tiny to have any funds. We started in 1979 and kind of grew out of the response to my open letter to Hanoi. We were just going to do that letter and then disband as a group, be we liked each other and we liked what we could get done. Then, we spent a while defining what we would be. We felt that it was not philosophically a good idea to have an organization designed around a figure. But after three months of debating, we decided we’re gonna do it anyway and, in a sense, it is partially that. I mean, I was on tour when the United States bombed Libya. In response to that, I just called the office in the middle of the night and said, ‘please, can you set up marches from my concerts to the middle of town or to federal buildings or whatever in the next few days?” So, that was done and they were very successful. Or we’ll write a letter and get it signed by Lech Walesa in one case or Mrs. Carter in another. We had a woman freed from Siberian exile just by doing the right thing. My name has often been the key to those things, but I don’t have the organizing capacity. While I do something like spend three years writing a book, the office, tiny as it is, plus volunteers, carries on other projects from children’s non-violent education to the continuing human rights pressure against funding the Contras and so forth.

The letter you wrote to Hanoi, criticizing the Communist government for its treatment of the boat people—did that affect your relationships with long-time friends?

Well, it did. You see, that letter came out just as the boat people were beginning to come out of Vietnam. It became harder and harder for people to stick to the line that everything was OK or that the only reason they were leaving was because we had devastated Vietnam. Everybody’s devastated Vietnam. I certainly wouldn’t have spent those ten years trying to get us out of there if I thought we were doing the right thing. Some of them (critics from the Left) have said “I’m sorry I couldn’t have joined you earlier; I think you were correct,” and others, like Kunstler, I appreciated his bluntness: “I never criticize a socialist country, period.” Well, he and I never had too much in common to begin with.

Have you ever considered yourself a Marxist?

Never. I have worked with Marxists and I have worked with people who are to the right of Kissinger, Kirkpatrick, and Attila the Hun, depending on the project. Of course, each time you do that, you absolutely outrage the other side. There are certain things that, to do efficiently and well, you work with a certain set of people. An example that is terribly funny was when I was visiting Lech Walesa. The people of Solidarity are all great Rambo and Reagan admirers, unless they are as sophisticated as Walesa. The chief of the shipyard union gave me this big Solidarity bronze medal. It was a big celebration and they cleared everybody out of the room, except for the priest and me and he gave this little speech and said, “the only other American who has one of these . . .” and I said “I don’t want to hear this” (laughs), he said “is President Reagan,” for whom he had only the greatest admiration. I just laughed and the priest understood and he laughed, too.

You became a “star” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. How many traditional songs did you know by heart?

Probably a couple hundred. I don’t know how many I remember at the moment, because I really haven’t sung them for a long time. But, you know, that’s all I did. I sat around and mooned about my boyfriend and/or fought with him and/or made love to him and in between that, I dropped out of school. So, I was still living at home and I’d get home from Club 47 (folk music venue in Boston) and I would sit in the kitchen and play for three hours.

Where did you find these songs?

Almost all from people because I’m not book-oriented at all. I’d hear a song in a club and I’d just go and nag them until they taught it to me. Then, when I was sort of a happening thing, some people would offer to write down from me the words to a song. But it’s all nice to look back on, because it’s in the folk tradition (laughing) stemming from the fact that I couldn’t read (music) either! 

You have a new album out called Recently. This is your first in eight years.

This record is the result of eight years of struggle. My feeling is—and this comes out in the book in several places—that strong things come out of struggle. “Brothers in Arms,” at the moment, is my favorite. My suspicion about that song is that it comes, consciously or otherwise, through “God on Our Side” (Dylan), which, of course, comes from “Patriot Game,” which is Irish in the first place. I think maybe all of those roots are what just rattled my base; it’s so strong to me. But the record accomplished more than I hoped it would. I knew it had to be fresh and have total integrity. It has to be me, but it has to make people say, “Oh, gosh, I didn’t think she’d make a record like that.”

Do you really have a gypsy background?

Not officially, but there really isn’t any other way you could possibly describe my mother’s upbringing. She was just shuffled from one bizarre stepmother to the next. She talks about one summer when all they ate was potato skins cooked over a fire. There wasn’t any food around. So, my gypsiness comes from my mom and, I suppose, in some ways my father, but he’s much more conventional.

You once said that Dr. King’s assassination came as a result of his stand on Vietnam. How do you connect the two?

He turned things around to the point where it became respectable nationally and internationally to be for integration and against segregation. That was fine with the White House. America looked better in the eyes of the world, etc. When he opened up his position on the war and made it public, that was not good for the United States government. It was good for the people, but even within his own ranks, there was huge dissension. They said, “don’t do that, Martin; your issue is black and white. Don’t mess around with that other stuff or you’re gonna lose your hotline to the White House,” which it did. Then, I think, he knew that he put his life into serious jeopardy. But I’m not big on conspiracy theories. It’s a mentality that kills people like that. A strange, cowardly mentality and there it is.

Were you friendly with Dr. King?

Oh yeh. From my tour of black colleges in the South . . . they sent me in his room that time to sing to him, to wake him up. Then, you joke a little bit and then after a couple car rides, a couple of meetings, then a private meeting and discussion . . . then his coming to visit me in jail. By then, you call it friendship.

How close were you to Thomas Merton (Catholic priest, noted for his advocacy of non-violence)?

I didn’t work closely with him, but I knew him enough to visit him (at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky). He and I ended up getting drunk. He was a wonderful man, funny and sweet, and had one of the kindest faces in the world. He was also very bright.

Could people really share their wealth and land, do you think?

Well, there are some very interesting projects where people simply have. There are projects in India where non-violent communities have gone and squatted and claimed land in the Gandhian sense. In many cases, rather than coming to more conflict and to blows and so forth, they have made an appeal to the landowner and the landowner, if he is touched or moved or feels that they’re correct, has given them the land. They, then, live on that land and work it, and have enough to live on and then give him some of what they grow.

What message would you convey to as many people as possible?

Slow down. That’s not a bad start and, I might add, shut up. (laughs) That’s from my Quaker upbringing. Silence is so lacking in these speedy and noisy times. You know what the Quakers say? The Quakers use, from the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God.” So, be still.

But then, you’ve always advocated action.  

Well, action, yes, but as Gandhi said, meditation is to a non-violent soldier what drill practice is to a conventional soldier.

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