Folk Matriarch ‘There Is A Lot More Laughter These Days,’ Says John Baez, The Voice That Influenced A Generation Of Female Artists
Midway through a recent interview with Joan Baez, something unusual becomes obvious.
Baez is laughing. She’s gregarious and warm and seems to be enjoying herself.
Whoa - this is Joan Baez? The woman who once greeted interviewers and other outsiders with a reserve that bordered on hostility? The woman who withered fools with a tone of voice cooler than the eastern slope of the Rockies in February? The interviewer considers this turn: More than once, he’s been on the receiving end of Baez’s reticence. And he knows from experience that she gets skittish when the conversation turns personal, but this seems like - well, like a new Baez.
After reviewing his options and measuring the darkest possibilities, he plunges ahead: “I’ve interviewed you three or four times over the years,” he ventures, “and this is the first time I’ve heard you laugh.”
Now she laughs again. It’s a genuine, musical laugh, a pleased-to-be alive laugh.
“Yeah, you’re right,” she says. “There is a lot more laughter these days.”
Yes folks, it’s a new Joan Baez. Warmer, happier and more open.
As she tells it, it’s all part of her decision eight years ago to commit herself to her music, which may seem like an odd choice for a professional musician, but “I’d never made a decision like that before,” she says.
Baez was swept into her career by an historic confluence of politics and pop culture: Her life’s course may well have been set for her the moment she stepped onto a stage and sang her first protest song.
But eight years ago, facing an uncertain future as an aging icon with a shrinking audience, she had to make some hard decisions about the rest of her life.
She stepped up to the plate.
She had been studying voice, but now she took up guitar and, perhaps more important, she took on some personal demons.
“Aside from the eight years of really rejuvenating the music,” she says, “along with that, and not coincidentally, came eight years of a kind of recovery work that I needed to do in the deeper therapy, which I’d put off until my late 40s. I’d been dodging around phobias and panic attacks and god knows what all my whole life.”
Whatever she did worked.
“I’ve got my life now in a totally different way,” she says, “so, yeah, there’s a whole lot more laughter, a lot more creativity and so on.”
Earlier this year, Baez released a record which vaulted her back to the top ranks of the folk world. Recorded live last year with several guest stars, it touches some of folk music’s favorite bases, from Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Ring Them Bells” to Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep.”
The guests include Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, Janis Ian, Tish Hinojosa, Mary Black and Dar Williams. All of them are women for whom Baez opened doors.
“I call them the whippersnappers, and they call me the matriarch. They credit me with getting them started, and I credit them with giving me a whole new audience.”
Baez will appear Sunday in a show at the Masonic Temple opened by New England folk legend Bill Morrissey.
Like Baez, Morrissey has been writing and singing folk songs since he was a child.
“Going back to grammar school, before I could play guitar, I would make up new words to the songs on the radio,” he says in a phone interview. “I finally got a guitar when I was around 14 years old for the sole purpose of making up songs.” Morrissey’s persistence paid off: He’s become one of the best songwriters around. Rolling Stone once wrapped him in the Hank Williams/Woodie Guthrie mantle as “… the troubadour as truth teller, conveying wisdom with absolute economy and focused fire.”
His latest CD, “You’ll Never Get to Heaven,” is another in a string of first-rate records that dates back to 1984. Its spare, tightly woven songs tell the stories of marginal people trying to make the best of their situations; like Raymond Carver stories, they remind us of the tentative nature of all life.
In 1993, after completing his “Night Train” CD, Morrissey began writing a novel, “Edson.” Published this spring, it has been winning lots of acclaim.
“It took me a year-and-a-half to write it, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I’ve always written short fiction, but I almost felt guilty about it; it took time and energy from songwriting, which was my real work.”
Morrissey wrote the book on the road and, like any novelist, was pleased to see his characters grow up.
“There’s a point where the characters take on a life of their own and rebel against the author. That was exciting for me.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Joan Baez and Bill Morrissey Location and time: Masonic Temple in downtown Spokane, 7 p.m. Sunday. (This concert was originally scheduled for the Riverfront Park venue.) Tickets are $20, $5 for kids under 12, available at G&B; Select-aSeat outlets or call 325-SEAT or (800) 325-SEAT.
This sidebar appeared with the story: Joan Baez and Bill Morrissey Location and time: Masonic Temple in downtown Spokane, 7 p.m. Sunday. (This concert was originally scheduled for the Riverfront Park venue.) Tickets are $20, $5 for kids under 12, available at G&B; Select-aSeat outlets or call 325-SEAT or (800) 325-SEAT.