The good fight

These days, the trademark black hair is frosted with silver. But the refreshing smile, bubbly eyes, angelic soprano voice and social passion remain pure.

They remind us of when “Queen of Protest” Joan Baez wove music and politics into social consciousness and artistic spirit. Make that present tense: Baez will perform in Asheville Tuesday night, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

Last year, she recorded with Jackson Browne, and dueted with both Roger McGuinn and Ralph Stanley on their respective, Grammy-nominated CDs. To date, Baez has recorded nearly 40 albums; her first 14 on Vanguard are now being re-released.

But discussing Baez’s music without talking about her politics is pointless. The singer, 61 — acclaimed by many as the leading celebrity protester over the last 40 years — has hosted benefit concerts for many humanitarian causes in the United States and abroad, receiving the Public Service Award at the first annual Rock Music Awards in 1975.

A leader of the ’60s folk renaissance, Baez was the first to make bestsellers out of traditional folk songs, and showcased her art touring with the Beatles in 1965. Like Peter, Paul and Mary, Baez popularized the songs of her friend — the young poetic counter-culturalist, Bob Dylan. They met in 1961, the year of her first national tour.

Together, Baez and Dylan took the movement from coffeehouses to protest rallies and mass concerts — from the civil-rights march in Washington, D.C. and Monterey Pop, both in ’63, to Woodstock in ’69 at the close of the decade.

In 1963, she put her three-octave voice on vinyl for Pete Seeger’s civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” and sang it before an estimated quarter of a million people at the civil-rights march on the nation’s capital that same year. Starting then, she politicized her music and stood for peaceful protest, change and self-fulfillment.

In Women’s Voices: Quotations by Women, by Jone Johnson Lewis, Baez reasons, “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can decide how you’re going to live now.” She also muses: “If it’s natural to kill, why do men have to go into training to learn how?”

Joan Chandos Baez was born Jan. 9, 1941 in Staten Island, N.Y. and grew up in Southern California. Her father, Albert Vinicio Baez, a doctor, was of Mexican heritage. Baez’s encounters with anti-Hispanic discrimination fueled her passion for civil rights, according to biographers.

Her younger sister, Mimi Farina, who died of cancer a year ago, was also a socially active folk singer with a tender voice. Farina founded a Bay Area group that, for more than 25 years, gave free shows for the sick, elderly, abused and imprisoned. Baez, Joni Mitchell and Willie Nelson performed.

“Mimi filled empty souls with hope and song,” Baez said in a press statement. “She held the aged and forgotten in her light. She reminded prisoners that they were human beings with names, and not just numbers.”

Finding her voice

Baez launched her singing career with old folk ballads, reflecting her mother Joan Bridge Baez’s Irish roots by perfecting British dialect and flowing vocals.

Her mother was a drama teacher; young Baez also took well to the stage. (This fall, she appeared in a cabaret-theater production; in 1984, she appeared in Hard Travelin’, a documentary about folk legend Woody Guthrie.)

Baez first sang professionally as a teen in Cambridge, Mass., offering traditional folk ballads, blues and spirituals in local coffeehouses. She quit Boston University to focus on music, scored a regular gig at Club 47, and recorded a group album with Bill and Ted Alevisos titled Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square (Veritas Records). In 1959, the 18-year-old Baez was invited to perform with Chicago singer Bob Gibson at the prestigious Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival. The next year, she appeared solo at Newport and released her first album. She went on to headline the festival in subsequent years.

In her first few years at Newport, she impressed other folk performers such as Peggy Seeger and her half-brother, Pete, the legendary political songwriter whose classics include “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” — and Baez’s signature song, “We Shall Overcome.”

Ms. Seeger — who wrote “Gonna Be an Engineer,” an early-’70s anthem of the women’s movement — lives in Asheville. Now 66, she remembers young Baez’s remarkable but humble stage presence.

“She just walked on stage, said a sentence or two, stood and sang,” Seeger said in a recent interview. “She loved being on stage.”

Seeger has recorded since 1954. She remembers that Baez asked for her autograph at their first meeting, and they’ve exchanged letters since. Baez had not explored her vocal range back then, Seeger recalls. “She had an absolutely beautiful voice, but it wasn’t terribly expressive, as it’s been since,” she comments, describing Baez’s stage manner as “gentle and dignified.”

Rebel with a cause

Seeger, herself an activist, admired Baez’s many political crusades. “She walked the talk, especially on civil rights and labor issues. And she’s gone to [third-world] countries where the American government hasn’t behaved well.”

Baez has even gone to bat for Pete Seeger. In 1963, she led a musicians’ boycott of ABC’s Hootenanny show, after the network banned Seeger because of his activism. In 1994, she performed in his honor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In the late ’60s, the singer expressed disillusionment with Bob Dylan’s eventual drift from political lyrics — and from her.

“The kids were calling out for him to do the songs that meant something to them,” she says in David Hajdu’s new book on Dylan and Baez, Positively 4th Street (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001). “They were reaching out to him, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to rock and roll.”

Not so Baez, who has campaigned for civil, labor and gay rights, free speech and the environment. The folk singer committed her first act of civil disobedience in 1957, refusing to leave her high school during an air-raid drill. That same year, a Gandhian scholar taught her peaceful protest.

As is well known, Baez actively opposed the Vietnam War. In 1964, after performing for President Johnson, Baez reportedly urged him to withdraw troops. Over the next eight years, she helped lead protests — including 2,500 women and children in a Ring Around the Congress in 1972. She was imprisoned for a month in 1967 for blocking the entrance to a draft center; in 1969, she spoke against the draft on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show.

After the war, Baez cited human-rights violations in communist Vietnam, sparking the rescue of refugees. She has protested oppression across the globe, doing free concerts for Czechs in ’89 as they were rising against communism. In war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia, she changed a verse in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to “Please, Lord, carry Sarajevans home,” according to Time magazine.

Baez has performed benefits for peace groups in Israel and Ireland. She has defied authority in Spain by singing a banned protest song. In Latin America in 1981, she reportedly received death threats during a five-week concert and human-rights fact-finding tour. In the ’90s, she joined the Indigo Girls’ conservation-benefit tours.

In her most recent benefit, the singer presented “The Lord’s Prayer” in a Palo Alto, Calif. peace gathering on Sept. 16, 2001, honoring the terrorism victims of five days earlier.

Acting locally

Though widespread and deep, Baez’s impact can be traced directly to the efforts of today’s activists.

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