Turning points

Still a champion for peace and justice, Joan Baez reviews her musical journey

When Joan Baez was 15, she met Martin Luther King Jr.

“He spoke at a thing engineered by the American Friends Service Committee – they would bring in two- or three-hundred high school students from all over the country to discuss the issues of the day,” Baez said during a telephone interview last week

“I started to cry, and I couldn’t stop,” she said. “I was already enamored with non-violence as a way of life and as a way of politicking. What happened during that speech was that it moved from something I’d read about to something people were doing at that moment.”

It was 1956. The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott was in full swing.

Meeting King, Baez said, was a “turning point,” an epiphany. But it wasn’t her first.

“In relation to how my career and politics wed, the other turning point worth mentioning is my reading Anne Frank’s book (“The Diary of a Young Girl”) when I was in Baghdad,” she said. “I so identified with her.”

When she was 10, Baez spent a year in Baghdad, where her father, a Mexican-born physicist, had accepted a teaching position.

Baez, of course, went on to become one of her generation’s staunchest, most outspoken advocates for peace and justice. The 64-year-old will be in Lawrence tonight at Liberty Hall.

“I’ll have a bass player and a guy who plays four different instruments,” she said of the lineup on this tour. “I’ll do some things by myself, some with just one of them and some with both of them.

“I’m going to make it into kind of a review, going back as far as ‘Scarlet Ribbons,'” she said, referring to a song she recorded in 1958.

Baez was in the news last month for performing at Camp Casey near President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. And two weekends ago in Washington, D.C., she sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” during an anti-war concert tied to Operation Ceasefire, thought to be the largest protest, so far, of the war in Iraq.

“Things have finally taken a turn,” Baez said.

Several newspapers used Baez’s appearances to draw parallels between the role of music in the anti-war protests of yesterday and today.

It’s a role that’s at the heart of “Christmas In Washington,” a Steve Earle tune that includes the line: “So come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now / Tear your eyes from paradise / And rise again somehow.”

Baez included “Christmas in Washington” on her “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar” CD and this year’s live “Bowery Songs” release.

“Somewhere in that pleading for the soul of Woody Guthrie are subconscious images of the Dust Bowl and the poor,” Baez said. “More and more, I think, like-minded people are realizing that ‘Yes, rather than banging our heads against this great wall of denial the (Bush) administration put up, let’s bring back something that has something to do with the Earth, that has something to do with caring for the poor – that is the antithesis of our current administration.”

Baez was featured, albeit fleetingly, in the PBS American Masters two-part documentary, “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.”

“I think it’s wonderful, superb. (Dylan) said more than I ever thought he would,” she said. “I’ve only seen the first half, but I have a copy.”

Baez said she hasn’t read the biographical “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.”

“But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said, laughing at herself. “I don’t end up reading a lot. I’m on output all the time. I think ‘Oh, I’m going to read this,’ then I get a whole stack of books next to the bed, and then I start writing poetry.”

The artist’s Liberty Hall appearance is the third stop on a five-week tour, her first in 2005.

“I’ve really tried to stay home,” she said. “I wanted to be around my parents -they’re 92, both of them – my grandchild, who is 2, and my son and daughter-in-law.”

She added, “I kind of missed out on a lot of intimate relationships the first time around. I’ve made up for a lot.”