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A living, singing '60s conscience

Published Apr. 29, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

While most of her longtime fans will probably always regard her as the ardent proselytizer of 1960s social and political activism, Joan Baez has been doing her best lately to remind folks that she is, first and foremost, a singer.

"I'm a sucker for a good song," she admitted in a recent phone interview. "It took me a while to realize that maybe I had not been doing justice to my music."

So, two years ago, Baez hired a couple of producers who knew their way around Nashville and, with a small acoustic band, recorded for Virgin Records Play Me Backwards, an album many critics contend was a landmark effort from the 53-year-old singer.

"It was a fun and simple record to make," she said. "I'm hoping to go back soon and follow it up."

Even though she was one of the more outspoken (and visible) members of the 1960s counter-culture, marching on Washington for civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War and raising money for various human rights organizations, Baez doesn't play the role to the hilt.

"I've come to realize that those activities offered their own special reward for me," she says, "but music offers an important reward, too."

The daughter of a prominent professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Baez bounded into prominence with a performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.

Almost instantly, her "achingly pure soprano," as one critic called it, catapulted the shy, long-haired singer into a balladeering diva and ushered in a wave of new-found respect for traditional American music.

Over the next few years Baez was a familiar presence in the press _ from a celebrated (and thankfully brief) affair with a waif-like singer named Bob Dylan to a gathering with Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters in violence-torn Grenada, Miss.

The folk music boom proved to be formidable for performers such as Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and Donovan. As her own popularity increased, Baez never let the glamor or the financial success undermine her own principles.

To her credit, Baez refused an invitation to appear on the popular ABC-TV folk music variety series Hootenanny because the network had blacklisted her mentor, Pete Seeger.

As the 1970s came, Baez began looking beyond the Gothic folk genre. Still very much politically inclined, she fought the urge long enough to record her best-selling albumDiamonds And Rust in 1975.

She briefly strayed into the realm of pop singer with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in 1977, but, as the 1970s wound down, so did Baez's recording career.

She jumped from record company to record company, unable to produce the kind of product that would sell measurably and deliver artistic justice.

Baez spent much of the 1980s balancing her musical career while in pursuit of her causes, most notably, human rights issues.

Working with such groups as Amnesty International and her own organization, Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, she worked closely with governmental factions in Latin America, Vietnam, Africa and eastern Europe.

While she remains an active voice for social and political change both in the United States and abroad, Baez laments the diminishing atmosphere in which those messages play, which may help to explain the growth of violence in America today, she says.

"You can't write Blowin' In The Wind in a vacuum," she insists.

"I don't think there are really any artists who want to take the role of spokespeople," she says. "It's as if they consciously avoid it."

Baez doesn't avoid the role. She offers a healthy dose of humanistic consciousness at her concerts these days.

"I think there will always be a need for the affirmations of the 1960s," she says. "It was what we were raised on."


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