The Gonz Show: Joan Baez

By John Gonzalez | Boston Magazine |

The folk legend returns to her former Cambridge stomping grounds, and makes John Gonzalez wistful for the good ol’ (combative) days.


You’ve played Club 47 in Cambridge many times in your career. It’s called Passim now, but are you excited to be coming back?
Oh God, I got my start there in 1958. I am excited. I did one benefit there with them. And I’ve done other stuff there in between like [this month's] benefit.

I read where you once said "the easiest kind of relationship for me is with 10,000 people. The hardest is with one." But then I read that you had intense stage fright, and you had a therapist help you with it.
I had terrible stage fright when I began. I have none now. Unless it’s a big deal like Paris or sometimes New York. In general, I walk out onto the stage and pretty much have a good time. Most of the audiences are wonderful to sing to. But I had done stuff in high school, sung at proms and things. And I always got nervous. I think when I started doing honest to god shows in halls and that, it was terrifying. They would finally take me and throw me out on stage, and I was OK. Before that, you just think you’re going to die or something. Slowly it started getting less and less on its own. I tackled everything in therapy.

You lived in Boston for a while. Your father was a physicist at MIT. Is it true that he refused to work on the Manhattan project?
Yes.

Did his example inspire your activism?

Yeah, it did. When you realize that [violence] isn’t a possibility in your life, then the answer is clear. You either do something more creative or things end up badly. Some of my friends that lived in the world of nonviolence really disarmed people who were dangerous. You get trained to think of how you relate to people. Are they really as scary as they try to be? It is about disarming people.

You famously sang "We shall overcome" at Dr. King’s March on Washington, and you were a great champion of civil rights. But Boston, during that time, was not a racially tolerant place. A lot of people believe it still isn’t. What was living here like for you?
I was really young. I had my first job there—teaching people how to ride Vespas. It was a terrible job. It’s sort of dangerous. Then I worked with the blind. That was interesting. It was fascinating, actually. Then I started doing nights at Club 47. Those were the very early days. Then I fell in love with someone going to Harvard, and that turned my whole life upside down. I was pretending that I went to Boston University, but I really went for six weeks. And that was it. It was as though I was politically inclined and politically savvy when I was with my family, but when I met Michael, that was his name, I kind of dropped everything. I didn’t rejoin it for a couple of years, and then it was by way of a SANE rally. It was a rally where they threw stuff at us, and I think they hit Pete Seeger with an egg or something. It was that way everywhere. You really couldn’t find a place that wasn’t volatile. People envision the racial problems in the south, but they were everywhere. They still are.

A lot of people say they see parallels between what’s happening globally now and the unrest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I don’t. I think my generation is too complacent and comfortable to be as motivated as you were then. It’s all an abstraction for us.
Things got comfortable for people who could afford to have it comfortable. It really is an age of greed. The poor are getting poorer, and the few rich are getting richer. If you start off well, you can start collecting money. It’s a hobby or a lifestyle and it has nothing do with sacrificing anything for a cause, for the betterment of somebody. People crawl into their own space. We don’t have communities unless we create them. The parallels are that there’s a war going on that’s futile and stupid and people are dying in the way that they did in Vietnam.

You were jailed for some of your protests. What was that like? I don’t think I could make it on the inside. I’m delicate.
(Laughs.) That’s funny. Talk about community. You do need community there. I was with friends and fellow protestors. That made it easier. It was minimum security. We could grow our own food. I gained eight pounds there.

You’re so much tougher than me.

(Laughs.) You’re only 30.

Yeah, but apparently I’ve wasted the first 30. Weren’t you also pregnant during Woodstock?
Yes. It was amazing.

So on VH1′s list of the 100 greatest women of rock and roll, you’re No. 27. That’s a travesty. They had Linda Ronstadt and Chaka Kahn higher. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Now that you’ve inspired me to be an activist, I’m going to picket the VH1 offices in protest. Or, barring that, stop watching that channel.
(Laughs.) The thing that’s kind of skewed is that I’m not really rock and roll. I won’t go in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I just sort of missed all that because of the style I am. So it doesn’t bother me. In a way, I’m in a unique pocket—so I can’t be preoccupied by being the Queen of rock and roll. But that’s very nice of you to defend me.

There’s a famous quote by your best songs. "Words just crawled down my sleeve and out onto the page." I’m in the middle of a piece, and I’m stuck. If you have any extra words, could you have them crawl my way? For me, the process isn’t nearly as pleasant. It’s more like vomiting.

(Laughs.) Well, vomiting is better than having it stuck in a toothpaste tube like cement, don’t you think?

I suppose that’s right.

I wish we could go on talking. You have enough now to vomit?

I do. Thank you.