Joan Baez on her time in Denver and what it took to finally get over her stage fright
It took decades, but Joan Baez has finally overcome her stage fright. The legendary folk singer and activist, who initially found fame during the folk renaissance of the 1960s, partnering with Bob Dylan on stage and fighting for a wide range of causes into the '70s, '80s and '90s, says she's discovered a newfound sense of creative comfort and inspiration in the past several years.
The past decade has seen the most dramatic growth for Baez. A 2009 episode of the PBS series American Masters revisited her musical achievements and turned a new generation on to her work. The past year has been particularly tumultuous, as Baez spent a good part of the past twelve months with her mother, who died at the age of 100 in April. We caught up with Baez to talk about her history in Denver, the loss of her mother, her newfound love of painting and her revived enthusiasm for playing on the road.
Westword: I wanted to start out with some local history. I bought a few of my first guitars at the Folklore Center out here, and I'm not sure if you remember the place.
Joan Baez: I do.
I read that you came to Denver the first time in 1964 by train, and that Folklore Center founder Harry Tuft picked you up at Union Station and drove you to the gig.
That's right. I remember the Folklore Center was appropriately folky, and that they had great stuff there, and that Harry was a great guy in every sense of the word.
What else do you remember about your first trip to Colorado?
Well, the overwhelming memory is, of course, that I sang at Red Rocks, and that was wonderful. The Beatles came in the next night on their first tour. That kind of wipes out any other memories I might have had, because I was backstage when they went on stage, and it lit up like day with the flashes, and the screaming was so loud. The energy was so out of whack that if I'd seen everybody lurch out of their wheelchairs, I wouldn't have been shocked at all, you know. It was crazy. But I've always loved going to Denver and Boulder, I must say, just because it's beautiful, and the people are smart.
How did Red Rocks compare to some of the other places you'd played?
I'm not going to remember very well, but I guess I'd been at it for a while, for four or five years. I'd seen some very big places, but Red Rocks stood out because it was so beautiful. I mean, it was one of those outdoor miracles. It was also hard to breathe, but it was compensated for by the public and by the hall.
You've made a point of stopping pretty regularly here since then. For all of the ups and down that folk music has had nationally, it seems like it's always had a reliable anchor out here. Is that one of the reasons you kept coming back?
I hadn't thought of it, but I get it when you're saying that. It's probably largely due to the Folk Center.
Have you spent much time touring with the younger folk acts?
I'm not spending a lot of time doing that. I don't usually share concerts with people. I will now with the Indigo Girls and some of the younger groups. But Jackson Browne and Emmylou [Harris] and I are getting together on stage to do a concert for a homeless group. It has a certain quality to it when there are legendary pipes all on one stage. When that happens, then we do start reminiscing, because there's so much to reminisce about. For me, anyway, you're talking about 53 years.
Speaking of that benefit show for the homeless group, one of the quotes from you that I remember from the documentary had to do with the fact that social justice is more important for you than music. Does that still hold true?
Yeah, I think it's very important for me to say that I'm not pretending to be championing anything at the moment, because I've done that so much in my life that people have an image of me doing that. The image that I'd like them to have for a while, anyway, is me spending a lot of time with my mom as she was getting older and as she was dying and as she died. That was as important to me as anything else I can imagine in this society that doesn't really deal with death very well. It occupied a lot of my life, and she did die, and I did learn. It was an extraordinary journey.
The other part was that my life was going to places I knew nobody else would go to, and doing the things that they probably couldn't do. At the moment, I think I see fairly clearly the state of the world, and I know that it's changed from the '60s, that it's almost impossible to find something to latch on to, you know, as far as organizing. I've kind of boiled it down to little victories and big defeats.
The state that the world is in can be one big defeat, because it's so terrible and if I had one thing that I would say is my major concern, it's global warming. Because when I think of my granddaughter who's nine, I can't see how she's going to have a future beyond fifteen years. At the same time, I'm not pretending to be out on the front lines of that trying to reverse climate changes.
But what I do think is that maybe because of the big defeat as the backdrop, all of the little victories are more important. I mean, young people who are willing to do anything -- I know a couple of people who went out and lived with the homeless for a while. I mean, for real. They didn't go back to the Holiday Inn at night. To learn about life and other people's lives and to keep tuned into compassion and empathy and caring and sacrifice in these decades of greed, I think, is enormously important.