“My feet are tired from all this marching, but I won’t stop,” Joan Baez told a packed house at Boston’s Wang Center earlier this month. She’s not lying. The music icon began her career in the midst of the countercultural and civil rights activism of the 1960s, and remains today a globally recognized artist who sings songs of peace and social justice.
Now 75, Baez continues to dedicate her life to nonviolent action and human rights. She has partnered with the Innocence Project for her current tour, acting as an ambassador for their tireless work combatting wrongful convictions. On the eve of her tour’s North American leg, the singing legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee talked with PEOPLE about her remarkable past and how to make the future a little brighter in the land of the free.
What drew you to partner with the Innocence Project?
I’ve been looking for something to do that makes sense in this country, because we’re in this country for this tour, and it made more sense than anything else. It’s absolutely relevant at the moment with mass arrest, racial discrimination and torture. And, of course, it turns out that the Innocence Project are so efficient and have had a lot of success, plus they have groups in every city we’re going to. We got in touch with them and they seemed delighted. I can totally get with it, my head and my heart is really there with this, and I hope we can make some sense out of everything.
What type of impact are you hoping for with your audience?
I’m hoping for mobilization — a call to action, raised social conscience. It all starts with education. This is so appealing to people, it’s really something you can sign on to. Every city has their own project. People want to do something but they can’t always find it. This is a doable project.
In June, John Lewis and several other legislatures staged a Sit-In to protest Republican inaction regarding gun control laws. Many felt that this was reminiscent of the civil rights battles that took place in the 1960s. What did you think of this?
I was knocked off my feet, I was so excited! Even if it only lasted 24 hours, it was brilliant and showed people something about what happened in the old days. I don’t think social change will ever come unless people are willing to take a risk. They were risking their reputations, votes, all of that. It was something new to people.
You’ve participated in incalculable demonstrations over the years. Perhaps most famously, you performed “We Shall Overcome” during the 1963 March on Washington—just before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. Do you think musicians still take risks in the way you did?
You know the feeling we all had — “all” meaning “likeminded people” — when Obama was giving his early speeches before he became president? It shifted the world. I was totally caught up in that because the feeling reminded me of the ’60s and early ’70s and many younger people had never experienced that before. It was a cohesiveness. What we need is that cohesiveness again. I don’t know what brings that. Charisma? The stars aligning? What I know is that right now we don’t have that, and it’s hard to expect people to do certain things when they don’t feel as though they have somebody doing it with them.
You turned 75 in January and celebrated with a career-spanning concert alongside many other musicians including Paul Simon, Judy Collins and David Crosby. How did that come about?
In this society, people don’t want to think about death. Or aging. And for that alone, I wanted to do this 75th birthday celebration. And I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, how in 4 years I’m going to be 80. That’s absolutely insane! But there it is. And I’m going to deal with it! I feel 65. But 80 is staring me in the face. And instead of pushing it away I’m going to have to try and accept it.
—by Haley Zoller