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Joan Baez On 'Whistle Down The Wind' And Working Through Pessimism

Feb 27, 2018
Originally published on February 28, 2018 8:56 am

Joan Baez has dedicated her life to music — and the causes for which music can speak. The folk star began using her voice to protest in the 1960s, leading rallies against wars and discrimination alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie. Though gentle, her renditions of "We Shall Overcome" and "What Have They Done to the Rain" served as the heartbeat to peaceful revolutions.

Last year, Baez was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at age 76. Soon after, she announced she would retire from touring after releasing a new album — her first in a decade. That release, Whistle Down the Wind, arrives this week. The singer says it was made over a period of just three visits with her collaborators, "which is how I like to work — fast."

Producer Joe Henry and a handful of star songwriters put their own touches on the record, but the strength of the 10-track offering lies in Baez's tone and interpretation. Baez is spry on Tom Waits' "Last Leaf," almost apostolic on Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Things That We Are Made Of" and somber on Zoe Mulford's "The President Sang Amazing Grace," about the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C. Where some tracks are shrouded in despair, Baez's steady voice keeps the spirit of the album balanced.

Baez spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about covering other great artists and how protesting — and protest anthems — have changed in the new millennium. "I'm basically pessimistic," Baez says of her outlook today, "but I heard somebody say the other day that pessimism is a waste of time. So I'm working on it."


Interview Highlights

On the challenge of writing protest music today

In the '60s and '70s, we had basically civil rights and Vietnam; it was very clear. Now, every single day there's a new issue to try and keep up with and deal with and decide is that's where you want to put your energy. So it's baffling, as you know, and it's not going to get any simpler. So, yes, we need that anthem. It beats shouting, but in the meantime, it's better shouting than silence.

On the song "The President Sang Amazing Grace"

It's an amazing little tune. When I first heard it, I had to pull the car over, because I started crying. And then for the first two weeks of trying to figure it out on the guitar, I kept crying. I was afraid that when I got in the studio, it wouldn't be over. But I went into the studio, and then I just looked at the musicians and I said, "Let's go to church."

On retiring from the road (sort of)

I think the thing that I need to say goodbye to is the six weeks in the bus at a time and keeping the voice up, which is a daily affair, and then preparing for the concert and then singing for an hour and a half to two hours, and then getting on the bus and going to the next place. The loophole is, obviously, anytime I feel compelled to take part in political action, or if somebody calls and says, "We're in a stumble, we're having a folk festival, would you like to do 20 minutes?"

On cherishing small victories

I have such a low regard of how the human race has behaved — you know, for the last few centuries, at least — that I don't expect much. ... In light of what we're experiencing in this decade, which is something that none of us could have dreamed of during the worst, darkest periods of the work that we did in the '60s and '70s or '80s or '90s — we couldn't have written this scenario. So in the face of what looks like really bleak defeat, we have to do the little victories. And you have to consider every step that's a positive step that brings back compassion, that brings back empathy, that brings back political action. Day by day, these are the victories. At the end of the day, you get only what you did that day. You don't get a whole future of world peace.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER DAGGER")

JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) Don't sing love songs. You'll wake my mother.

They say I had a voice like an angel and a mouth like a dockworker.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And that is Joan Baez. Starting in the 1960s, her music provided the soundtrack to a peaceful revolution through street protests and civil rights battles, marches for women's equality and against the Vietnam War. Now Joan Baez is 77 with her first album in a decade called "Whistle Down The Wind." She says this album tour will be her last. And she thinks of the record as a bookend to her very first one in 1959.

BAEZ: The first album had the song "Silver Dagger" on it, this famous, famous old folk song ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER DAGGER")

BAEZ: (Singing) And in her right hand a silver dagger.

And on this one I asked Josh Ritter if he'd write me a song. And he wrote a song called "Silver Blade."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER BLADE")

BAEZ: (Singing) I have myself a silver blade. The edge is sharp, the handle bone. A little thing of silver made.

I think in the beginning also there was - I did mostly ballads. And then as the years went by, as in, like, the second and third album, then the political-leaning music came in. And this album now is a combination of those two things, very sparse. We made it in three visits of three days each, which is how I like to work - fast.

SHAPIRO: Your music was some of the signature protest songs of the 1960s. And in that time, there were songs that everybody sang together at protests, some of them your songs. And today it feels like the protests are as big as they have ever been, but it doesn't feel like there is a shared soundtrack.

BAEZ: No, I think you're absolutely right. And in the '60s and '70s, we had basically civil rights and Vietnam. It was very clear.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BAEZ: Now every single day there's a new issue to try and keep up with and deal with and decide if that's where you want to put your energy. So it's baffling, as you know (laughter). And it's not going to get any simpler. So, yes, we need that anthem. It beats shouting. But in the meantime, it's better shouting than silence.

SHAPIRO: I wondered about "The President Sang Amazing Grace"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PRESIDENT SANG AMAZING GRACE")

BAEZ: (Singing) A young man came to a house of prayer. They did not ask what brought him there.

Oh, gosh (laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Because it feels so specific and so overtly political. And...

BAEZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...It's a beautiful, simple tune.

BAEZ: Yeah. It's an amazing little tune. When I first heard it, I had to pull the car over 'cause I started crying.

SHAPIRO: We should say this song about President Obama was written by an artist named Zoe Mulford.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PRESIDENT SANG AMAZING GRACE")

BAEZ: (Singing) But then the young man drew a gun and killed nine people, old and young.

And then for the first two weeks of trying to figure it out on the guitar, (laughter) I kept crying. I was afraid that when I got in the studio it wouldn't be over. But I went into the studio. And then I just looked at the musicians and I said, let's go to church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PRESIDENT SANG AMAZING GRACE")

BAEZ: (Singing) So on that day and in that place, the president sang "Amazing Grace." The president sang "Amazing Grace."

SHAPIRO: I have seen women of a certain age march with a protest sign this year, and the sign euphemistically says, I can't believe I still have to protest this - let's just say nonsense because it ends with a word we can't say on the radio.

BAEZ: (Laughter) I've seen the sign.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You've seen the sign. After half a century of singing songs of protest about women's equality and war and racial justice, do you share that sense of exhaustion? I can't believe I have to keep protesting this nonsense.

BAEZ: (Laughter) I have such a low regard with how human race has behaved, you know...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BAEZ: ...For the last, you know, few centuries at least that I don't expect much. And in that...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Whoa.

BAEZ: (Laughter) Seriously. So that way any little step becomes a victory. And I also think that now, in the light of what we are experiencing in this decade, which is something that none of us could have dreamed up - you know, in the worst, darkest periods of the work that we did in the '60s and '70s and - or '80s and 90s we couldn't have written this scenario. So in the face of what looks like really bleak defeat, we have to do the little victories. And you have to consider every step that's a positive step, that brings back compassion, that brings back empathy, that brings back understanding of political action. Day by day, these are the victories. And at the end of the day, you get only what you did that day.

SHAPIRO: There are some moments of despair on this album. There's a song by Anohni called "I Need Another World" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER WORLD")

BAEZ: (Singing) I need another place. Will there be peace? I need another world. This one's nearly gone.

Yeah. If it weren't so beautiful, it's too dark to sing. It's too dark. But unfortunately, that's (laughter) - that speaks to my heart. I'm basically pessimistic. But really, the other day I heard somebody say that pessimism was a waste of time, so I'm working on it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Still working on it 50 years later (laughter)?

BAEZ: I'm working on it, trying to get that glass half full.

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, it strikes me that that song, "I Need Another World," whether it is sung by Anohni or sung by you...

BAEZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Requires a voice as beautiful as that to allow the lyrics to not just destroy the listener, that...

BAEZ: To sing this. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...The voice tempers the lyrics.

BAEZ: I hope so because it is. It's devastating. You know, it says, I'm going to miss the birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER WORLD")

BAEZ: (Singing) I'm going to miss the birds.

And I already do. So for me, it's finding beauty in the day because I can't lament the fact that the birds are endangered. I have to listen to the birds that are singing in my yard.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you've said this is going to be your last year of formal touring. And I think...

BAEZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...A lot of your fans are hoping that there's a big loophole in that word formal.

BAEZ: Yeah, there is. That's why we're talking about it that way. I think the thing that I need to say goodbye to is the six weeks in the bus...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BAEZ: ...And keeping the voice up, which is a daily affair. And then preparing for the concert, and then singing for an hour and a half to two hours, and then getting on the bus and going to the next place. So, no, the loophole is obviously any time I feel compelled to take part in political action or if somebody called and said, you know, here in Istanbul we're having a folk festival; we'd like to come and do 20 minutes. And that's very different to me from the other.

SHAPIRO: Well, Joan Baez, thank you for the decades of wonderful music, including this newest album, "Whistle Down The Wind."

BAEZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me on the show.

SHAPIRO: "Whistle Down The Wind" comes out this Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LEAF")

BAEZ: (Singing) I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest, but it won't take me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.