Joan Baez: Still Sassy at 67
Published by Seacoast Media Group, December 2008
For the last few months I had been thinking about writing a piece about the large number of famous people who turned 50 this year, especially in the entertainment industry. That little boy pop stars Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson had 50 candles to blow out kind of blew my mind. And it is impossible to be unimpressed with how four hours of physical training a day looks on Madonna at 50. I’d been thinking that reaching the half-century mark was a milestone worth mentioning.
That was until I went to see Joan Baez perform at Berklee, and I realized that those little whippersnappers don’t deserve a mention. Not yet anyway.
Born in January 1941 Joan is deservedly known as one of the foremost folk singers and songwriters of the century, but really is a much broader talent than that. She is also well known for her social activism, and once said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” As with all true artists, her work has always been an expression of her beliefs and passions, and she has even been jailed for hers. Though for the first time in her professional life she recently endorsed a candidate for president (guess who), she is still a serious pacifist and her fire is not fading. She says her direction in life was shaped when she met Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Quaker meeting in 1956.
Joan moved to Boston at the age of 17 and spent only one year studying music, more in small clubs and coffee houses than at university, before she became a hit at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. By the time she played Woodstock (when she was 6 months pregnant) she was already well known. It was a thrill for me to hear her sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot which was one of the songs she performed on the Woodstock stage. She has been at it ever since, and told us, “It’s crazy that I’ve been up here for 50 years, but it’s crazier that you’re still there.”
With all due respect to Madonna, I honestly think that Joan Baez has never looked more beautiful than she does now, and that it is a natural beauty that can only come with loving your age. There is a healthy elegance about her that clearly radiates out from her center, where her remarkable voice also originates.
She says she no longer has the full 3 octave-vocal-range she is known for, and while her voice has certainly deepened with age, she was nothing short of amazing when she performed for 90 minutes for us, on her feet the whole time, giving her band a break but never taking one herself, and graciously responding to two standing ovations.
She has perfected her stage show, knowing exactly how to communicate with her audience; how much to give to them and ask of them, how to make them laugh (her Dylan impression is a hoot!) and cry. And even how to lead them in song, as she did on her final number, an acapella rendition of Amazing Grace that she led us in singing along with her, like the most devout choir director. As when I heard Odetta sing House of the Rising Sun acapella I was moved in a way that defies articulation.
It felt like I had just participated in the quintessential aging hippie experience, as I filed out of the auditorium behind a white haired gentleman using a cane, and dabbing tears from my cheeks. It was the only concert I’ve ever been to, and I have been to many, where the only thing I could say after was “Amen.”
Lest you think you have little in common with this 67 year old political and pop-culture icon, know that she is adjusting to being a grandmother, and that she is currently living with and caring for her 95 year old mother. Amen to that too.