Why I’m still fanning the flames at 71

Joan Baez
Joan Baez
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ABIDING memories from Joan Baez’s last performance at Sheffield City Hall are when she walked on stage and curtseyed gracefully amid rapturous applause, and when she left after leading, on her own, a communal version of Amazing Grace.

She sang descant as the hymn echoed around the hall and tears filled many eyes.

Bob Dylan, her one time beau whose career she gave a big helping hand, once recalled “that heart-stopping soprano voice. I couldn’t get it out of mind.”

And who can argue with Dylan?

On that last occasion in Sheffield, in 2004, Baez was also spotted waltzing around the City Hall ballroom with an imaginary partner. Perhaps she’ll take a twirl with her son, Gabe, when she returns on Monday.

He will be playing percussion alongside mum and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell on her latest UK tour.

She has played with many bands, but the most compelling image is of her as a solo performer. A trio will be just fine, though.

“I can do whatever I want to do,” she says from her home in California. “It’s less restrictive. I know both of the guys very well and it’s less complicated. And having Gabe with me is really special.”

And it gives her the chance “to just come out and sing”.

That’s something she has been doing to stunning effect since starting in the coffee houses of Boston and Cambridge, before making her breakthrough at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and a year later releasing her debut album that did something that folk albums don’t usually do. It sold lots of copies.

The history book records how, influenced by Harry Belafonte, Odetta and Pete Seeger, she was dubbed the Queen of Folk and how her pristine voice was a soundtrack to social and political change. Songs such as With God On Our Side, There But For Fortune and We Shall Overcome are enduring anthems of protest, and still pack a powerful punch.

Most recently she has teamed up fruitfully with Steve Earle, no stranger himself to stirring the political pot.

She has recorded a number of his songs - Christmas in Washington stood out at the last Sheffield concert - and the most recent album, Day After Tomorrow, features three - God Is God, which has been rapidly absorbed into the stage performance, I Am A Wanderer and Jericho Road.

The collaboration with Earle sees him take control of production, play guitar and harmonium and sing harmony.

Working with him was “a no brainer,” she says. “I was asked whether I’d like to think about Steve Earle producing an album. I didn’t have to think about it. I knew his nature, his politics and his songwriting. I knew it would be fine and it was more than fine.”

The singing goes on, and so does the campaigning. She is never short of requests to add her voice to a cause.

“They all go into the office, and me and my assistant look for 100 ways to say ‘no’! The ones we do choose have to be about non-violence and something that calls to me.”

One such time was when she was asked to support American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan whose son Casey was killed during the Iraq War, joining a makeshift anti-war camp outside President George Bush’s Texas ranch in 2005. “I said I’ll go there. It was as automatic as that.”

The influence of Joan Baez continues to run deep. After all, this is the woman who stood up so prominently against the Vietnam War, marched with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, stood with Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday celebrations and inspired Vaclav Havel in his fight for a Czech Republic.

And the fire is still burning bright. She enthuses how the uprising against Slobodan Miloševic in Serbia involved hundreds of thousands of young demonstrators without the use of violence.

It’s young people, too, she points out, who are in the vanguard of the Occupy movement. She performed at Occupy Wall Street’s Veterans Day rally in New York, and is full of praise for this “collection of kids” who are “prepared to take a risk”.

With the world in such economic, social and political turmoil, surely we can look to Joan Baez for glints of optimism?

“I’ve always said I’ve never been optimistic, I’ve always been realistic, from the age of 16. The human race behaves so badly. The trick is to do the work whatever comes in and you don’t know what the outcome will be.

“Hopefully it will be your own truth and it will move other people.”

Famously, she once said she saw herself first as a human being, then a pacifist and finally a folk singer.

Now she says: “I’d prefer to put together the music and the politics. I used to have an allergy to talking about the music. I was so serious about social change. I didn’t want to deal with the fame coming from the music. It was distasteful to me.”

At the age of 71, Baez is playing the game as she wants to play it.

“I want to spend time with my family, which I didn’t use to do. There’s my son, my grandson and my mum will be 99 in April! She has just capped her front teeth because she wanted to look pretty! She’s beautiful, but her teeth were getting dark!”

Down to basics, there is no longer the prospect of spending nights on a tour bus on her latest journey across the UK. “This time we are using a van instead of a bus. After the concert, we go to a hotel like regular people and sleep.”

It may be a van, but it offers the requisite comforts for a grandmother. “I said I’ll go in anything as long as I can lie down. There are plenty of blankets and pillows, and there are comfortable chairs for everybody else.”

But what about the weather at this time of year for somebody from California?

“I have never figured out why I do that, why I travel in Europe in March. Friends say: ‘Don’t you ever go to places such as Hawaii?’ But they are not as interesting as Europe.”