Joan Baez may be retired from touring, but she still has creative revelations to offer

joan baez interview



The 1960s storm of activism — including the anti-war, civil rights and feminist movements — was propelled by the unifying glue of music.

“I’ve never heard anyone else use the word ‘glue’ except myself and that’s what it is,” said Joan Baez, adding “that’s one of the reasons we’re so dispersed at this time, when we need to be together. I don’t know how the stars aligned to make that glue happen. I don’t think you can force it.”

She said that “the movements now have no real anthems the way we had back then. Nobody can write a ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or an ‘Imagine.’ You just can’t do it. I think writing an anthem is just about the hardest thing to write. I wouldn’t even attempt it. There are some things that are missing. There were 10 years of an explosion of talent. You can’t reproduce that.

“Also, we are in an avalanche trying to get uphill … an avalanche of evil. I used to not think that people were evil — it was just what they did that was evil. I’m really having a hard time holding onto that.”

Baez — one of the most majestic, deeply evocative voices from the ’60s — believes risk-taking has always been a necessary part of her advocacy. Born in 1941 in Staten Island, and now retired from touring and living in Northern California, she remains empathetic, with abundant creative energy.

Last year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was the subject of the immersive and unsettling documentary “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” and her autobiographical poetry collection, “When You See My Mother, Ask Her to Dance” (David R. Godine, 120 pp., $25.95), has just been released. In these endeavors, she reveals traumatic childhood experiences with sexual abuse and racism.

Hoping to leave an honest legacy, Baez gave filmmakers Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle keys to her late mother’s storage unit. They uncovered archives, including journals, letters, drawings and tapes that contained buried secrets. Prior to making the film, Baez had not looked at the storage unit’s contents. She shared her pain so that others may heal, while also settling issues that have haunted her.

Baez will read from her book — her first book of poetry, ever — at Bookends in Ridgewood, June 12 at 6 p.m., and will read and talk with Patti Smith at Symphony Space in New York, June 14 at 7 p.m. (The Symphony Space event will also be livestreamed.)

The cover of Joan Baez’s book, “When You See My Mother, Ask Her to Dance.”

In her poetry book, she writes about family members including her late sister Mimi Fariña, her late ex-husband David Harris and her son Gabriel Harris. Musicians including Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins also find their way into her poetic expressions.

Baez dedicated her book to her granddaughter Jasmine “and to the future.”

Are you optimistic about the future and music’s part in it?

“I think that whatever social change we attempt still needs music,” she said. “I don’t think there’s fresh music being written for that, but fortunately we still have Dylan. We still have those songs that are meaningful and give people courage and make them want to do things beyond their own private existence.

“I have this thing in my mind that says ‘little victories and big defeats’ because we are in that avalanche, trying desperately to do something. Any small victory along the way right now is important because it’s kind of the fabric of this country … people making sacrifices, like my ex who went to jail rather than Vietnam. That was the best of what you can do.

“Another best would be the sit-ins at the lunch counters. You can’t say ‘that didn’t work.’ It did change society. It ended up that a lot of it changed back because of the people you and I thought were not evil — just their deeds were evil — now I think they were a bit of both.

“I think we are in a perilous period. I’ve never been an optimist, but it’s never stopped me from doing what I did. I was accused of that since I was 15.”

Well, pessimism and activism is a good combination.

She laughed heartily, as she did frequently throughout the interview.

Was your revelatory documentary and intimate poems a new way of expressing activism?

“I didn’t plan it that way, but it turns out it is,” Baez said. “It’s given people room to see some of the things in themselves they didn’t want to deal with. That’s a form of activism on a much more personal basis.”

Baez’s poems were largely written in the 1990s, when she was in therapy.

She explains in her introduction to the book that between 1991 and 1997 she “wrote obsessively … In 1990 I began therapy that led to a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. That’s clinical-speak for developing multiple personalities as a way of coping with long-term trauma. Some of the poems in this collection are heavily influenced by or, in effect, written by some of the inner authors.”



Have you integrated the various personalities you mention in your book?

“Yeah, I have in the various ways one can do that, in order to become basically whole,” she said. “Once in a while somebody peeks out and makes themselves known, which is sort of nice for me. Then they go back to sleep.”

You show the complexity of childhood abuse in both your film and poetry book by revealing your deep affection for your father.

“Yeah, I tried to,” she said. “I didn’t have any say in this movie once it got started. I thought it was handled beautifully. I’m glad my mom and dad got to say their opinions. It was important.” (In the film, we hear from both parents via letters and taped therapy sessions.)

“I loved my mother and father. That’s why we bury that stuff, because we don’t want to wreck all that. I was lucky enough to be in that category of people to go through it … and feel the horror of it and then come out the other side and realize that I was just an extension of generational abuse. It must have been the same for my father in his family. It had to have been to some degree in his family, or he wouldn’t have been able to pass it on.”

You broke the pattern and that’s beautiful.

“Isn’t that lovely,” Baez said. “My son and I share a hug periodically and we say that ‘we got to stop it,’ and I give him credit for part of that because part of me was still screwed up trying to bring up Gabe and not doing it very well. That was the remnants of generational childhood abuse, but we got it by the horns and I think did a good job in finishing it off.”

Was it easier to reveal these things once your parents were gone?

“Well, I couldn’t have done it if they were still alive because it would have been too hurtful and I still love them,” she said.

I get it.

“That’s nice. I can tell that you do. Not everybody does.”

From a very early age Baez, showed signs that she was an empath. Has this characteristic been a friend or a foe?

“It caused me a lot of pain because I could feel other people’s pain,” Baez said. “In the end, all of this stuff makes you who you are. Eventually we look back: The music wouldn’t have sounded like that, my voice wouldn’t have sounded like that, I wouldn’t have painted and drawn like that. It’s all a reflection of what happened.”

The cover of Joan Baez’s 2018 album, “Whistle Down the Wind.”

Did your secrets sensitize you?

“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever those factors were, and there were many, they made me into this sensitive little creature. My mother was very empathic. My father did good deeds. I don’t think he was empathic, in a way. But I may be wrong. I wasn’t around him a lot when he was doing good things. His mother was a tyrant. And he protected her in his mind and in reality.”

She discussed her therapeutic process. “I realized we were on a path. I had this really brilliant therapist and I wondered (laughs), ‘If I get all better will I still be able to sing and write poetry?’ ”

She asked her therapist, “Do you have to be really screwed up to be creative?” Baez said her therapist responded, “Why don’t you be the first one to not have to be screwed up?”

Despite feeling more settled, you haven’t lost your spark.

“No, I haven’t and I’m delighted with that,” she said. “I’ve doubled up on creativity since I quit being on the road.”

One of her projects since retiring from touring in 2019 has been collating 10 years of portraits in her “Mischief Makers” series. She paints people committed to social change, including Dylan, Greta Thunberg, Paul Simon, Václav Havel, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Rep. John Lewis, Marilyn Youngbird, Barack Obama and Patti Smith.

Baez called me from Cambridge where she received an award from the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame. “It was very sweet because the room was filled with the foundation of folk music. A lot of it started right here,” she said.

At the ceremony, she sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” solo, in a deep, commanding voice and “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary. (See video below). The songs are chillingly relevant today.

“There are protest songs I sing when traveling around the world,” she said. “ ‘Imagine” is known absolutely everywhere, as is ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I love doing those in a country where people are suffering or oppressed by their government … they mean the world to people.”


The young Joan Baez.

Baez got her start in the Cambridge coffeehouse scene and played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. At 19, she released her first album, and at 21, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the face of the folk movement. She gained national prominence at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his profound “I Have a Dream” speech.” Her elegant voice moved through the crowd like a wave washing onto the shore when she sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Six months pregnant with Gabriel, she introduced the song “Joe Hill” at the 1969 Woodstock Festival by mentioning her ex-husband’s draft resistance. She performed her original song “Sweet Sir Galahad” — about Fariña’s second husband Milan Melvin — as well as “Oh Happy Day,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and others.

An exquisite interpreter of songs, she gave Dylan a national audience when she sang his tunes, including “With God on Our Side,” a protest song that exposes the twisted rationale of war. She has covered songs by many exceptional songwriters, including Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh Ritter, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello and Phil Ochs.

As the daughter of Quakers and pacifists, she learned to pledge “allegiance not to a flag or a nation state but to humankind, the two often having little to do with each other” (as she wrote in a 2016 Facebook post) and was raised to revere peace and justice.

Her father was a Mexican-born physicist and her mother had Scottish roots. Both her grandfathers were preachers and her dad was a professor.

Do you think the stage became your pulpit and the streets became your church?

“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” Baez said.

I know you were born a singer, but were you born an activist?


Joan Baez with James Baldwin and James Forman.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s interesting how three kids, my two sisters and I, basically went through the same grueling business in Baghdad — not even counting the abuse — and we all came out totally different.” (In 1951, Baez and her family spent a stressful year in Baghdad where Baez’s father worked for UNESCO.) “You would think that we would have similar responses to things because of what we went through, and that’s not how it works.”

Baez’s poems are ethereal, curious and reflective. “I always get a little help from somebody,” she said. “I mean an inner person tweaks me.”

In “Kindergarten,” she conjures a powerful memory of seeking protection and feeling empathy. She writes: “I’m dressed in my overalls because the boys will pull my skirt up in kindergarten and the teachers will just say, ‘stand up for yourself!’ but I cannot … I feel sad for the she-she boy who’s like a girl, because everyone hates him and they push him. I’m the only one who’ll play with him.”

What inspired it?

“The poem is my version of me sitting under a tree when I was 5 or 6,” she said. “The feeling is very strong, the feeling of sitting there, feeling very alone and wishing I could be with other people who could support me — like teachers. But they were lousy. They didn’t protect me.” She felt stigmatized due to her Mexican American background.

Her poem “Goodbye to the Black and White Ball” describes her healing from a life of high expectations. Baez writes:

I used to think the alternative to black and white
must be gray. To avoid living a dull life,
I dressed in black and white,
I thought in black and white—
not just good or bad, mind you,
but perfect or damned
gifted or worthless
ethereal or demonic
emblazoned or cast out.

... I let slip most of my life.

“I didn’t want to be like the average person and I had to go above and beyond,” Baez said. “I’m thinking back to when I thought I could draw better than anybody in the class. That started really early. That was my claim to something. I knew I could draw better than the teacher.”

Has that drive come at a cost?

“Yes,” she said, “I let slip most of my life and some of that still goes on. I have to do poetry better than anybody I know. I had to do paintings without any training. I would know more and I would probably paint better if I took a couple of classes. That’s part of it. I don’t want to be trained in anything.”



She doesn’t feel the need for poetry writing instruction. “I don’t think anyone could get me in a better place than I am because it was written by these highly gifted inner people. Sometimes I would read something and think, ‘Oh, who wrote that?’ Their identity was so strong. It had to be somebody other than me. It says in the film I even like that because it was different — that means it was out of the gray zone.”

The book’s title poem is dedicated to her mother, also named Joan Baez, and Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, one of the leading operatic singers of the 20th century. In it, Björling sings and dances with Joan Sr., who is “the dark girl. She’s a gypsy, and a vamp, a foster child. She’s a flower.”

The author enters the poem:

The filament that lines in the burnished edge of my own voice,
The naked talent I was given without choice, the part of me looks wistfully and listen so
Longingly to songs sung on a balcony a half a century ago
My voice knows instinctively
It was conceived that night in the dancing shadows, in the dancing light.

What inspired this imaginative poem?

“That’s an interesting one,” Baez said. “I wrote much of it recently. Originally, there was another narrative describing how my pen would design the next theme because I didn’t know what it was going to be.”

The poem “was a form of what happened with the folks inside here. It was a mystery to me what would be in the next act.”

In the poem, Joan’s mother brought her to hear Björling.

“The reality is that when I was in Cambridge in 1959, my mom took me to see Björling and he had cancelled,” she said. “I found out later he cancelled a lot because he drank too much.

“My career was literally just beginning and shortly after that concert he died. I had this mythical thing in my head that he passed his voice on to me. That’s in the poem. The ‘burnished edge’ of my raw talent came directly from that night when he was singing to my mom.”

In her poem “Portrait,” she references “Robert Zimmerman blue-eyed son from Duluth/used to scribble thought-dreams” and asks “who’s writing that kind of stuff today, Mister Creator?”

“The joke is me saying ‘Who will be doing this?,’ knowing nobody will,” said Baez.

You said in the movie that Dylan broke your heart. Did it take you several years to get over him because there was no closure when he left?

“It took decades,” she said. “And part of it is because the guy who walks away (leaves) the other person (feeling like) … they were abandoned. It was the music and the glory and my personal relationship. It was demoralizing. He was not nice and the people around him were not nice. So that made it harder. I would chalk a lot up to drugs. We were young and stupid.”

The cover of Joan Baez’s album, “Diamonds & Rust.”

The title track of her gorgeous 1975 album Diamonds & Rust was about her relationship with Dylan. She sang:

Well, you burst on the scene
Already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You strayed into my arms
And there you stayed temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes, the girl on the half-shell could keep you unharmed.

We discussed the aging process, which can be fraught with grief due to loss, but also relief that we don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders.

“That’s a good way to put it,” she said. “I mean, I’m settled in my mind. I have my moments, of course, when it all goes wonky.”

Her therapeutic work in the ’90s helped her settle down. “It began to come together with the alters, the inner people,” she said. “They were all supposed to get together and then fuse. They all disappeared. They all wanted to go to different places. Some of them wanted to go to Africa, some of them wanted to go up in the sky and be with the phantom of the opera. It was a highly imaginative group of individuals and it was very painful losing them. It was painful for them, too. We’d sit in the therapist’s office and everyone would weep, including the therapist, saying goodbye to people I’ve known for so long. People who’ve been in there since I was 3 … It was difficult to lose them.”

They didn’t fuse? You lost them?

“Yeah,” she said. “I was so busy protecting everybody and keeping the family together. One day I felt somebody knocking on my forehead from inside and one of them said, ‘I want out, I want to get on with my life.’ That was the first one to go.”

Have your phobias and panic attacks diminished?

“Oh yeah, it’s nothing like what it used to be,” she said. “For the most part, it’s a totally different life than what it was. I couldn’t have imagined it because I didn’t know what wholeness was.”

Baez finds freedom in her poem “Phobia.” She writes:

There seemed to be no limits on what could unfold as I let go of fear, little by little,
Eventually sending my dance partner ingloriously into retirement
Or on to do the foxtrot in some else’s ballroom

What issues do you come out for now?

“The key word you used is ‘come out’ because the picture is come out of the house and go to the streets with a banner,” she said. “So far, I’m home. I look for something where I’ll make a difference. I went to Ukraine, but I didn’t do it as a highly visible protest. I just went with some friends who work with children … it was really, really uncomfortable. I was in a bomb shelter and I’d do it again if it had some meaning. I’m up for the things that involve personal sacrifice and … make a difference.

“There are dilemmas as a pacifist. I hope Zelensky gets that money, but good Lord, that means more armaments and more death. And yet I have those instincts.”

After Baez gave her last performance in Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2019, she literally hung up her guitars on the wall.

“There are two of them hanging on the wall and they look so beautiful,” she said. “I think I’ve played three times in public since then. But to get there means getting the muscle memory back in my fingers, working on my voice, and it’s hard to plan anything more than two songs. I’ll leave them where they look pretty and I’ll struggle to get ready for my two songs. So far, that’s how it’s been.”

Your music has soothed and motivated many of us. Who has done that for you?

“It depends on the category,” she said. “If it’s music, I have to go back to rhythm and blues and Björling. He was big on my radar from the time I was 8. A huge part of my life is dancing. I still dance to the Gipsy Kings. Somebody said to me, ‘Oh, but they are so old.’ They are still, to me, as great as they ever were. I listen to music that’s all over the map on my loop … one night I’ll listen to everything Jackson Browne ever wrote and sang. I get great satisfaction out of that.

“A couple of the new ones I really love, friends now … Lana Del Rey and Maggie Rogers, my goodness, what a lovely surprise. And Phoebe (Bridgers) and Boygenius. Jasmine would say, ‘Hey, you ever hear (them)?’ And I’d put them on. Lana definitely stuck. I think Boygenius’ harmonies are something to be reckoned with. They are just extraordinary.”

Del Rey called Baez “the toughest woman I have ever met” at a screening of her film. Do you think you have to be tough to be sensitive?

“Well, yeah,” she said. “Gandhi was as tough as stone and tender as a lotus.”


Joan Baez at the Alabama State Capitol in 1965.

You’ve advocated for peace all over — in Chile, Hanoi, the United States, Ukraine. Are there any significant moments that you particularly treasure?

“Things like when I was influential in the then-Czechoslovakia with Václav Havel. He said that, which was really wonderful.

“What always comes to mind is a concert (at the Great Theatre of Ephesus) in Turkey in a 25,000-seat coliseum. If you stood on one place on the stage you didn’t need a microphone. It was unbelievable. I tested that out and it was true. There was something about that night. Turkey was not in great shape so I could do a lot of mischief there. Just the beauty of that night, looking out of the ruins of Ephesus. There are pictures like that in my mind that were somehow as important in their beauty as any of my activism.”

She talked about climbing the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery and referenced the 1965 photo of her (see above) in front of the National Guard that appeared in The New York Times, and in her film. (Baez marched with The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.)

“I’m standing and looking at where all this action had happened with the police and the demonstrations and there are two black kids dressed up for graduation not thinking about what got them there,” she said. “Things like that blow my mind.”

For more on Baez, visit


Since launching in September 2014,, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter