Sit-ins have given way to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Junkies squat behind the boarded-up windows that once gave onto the hippie-happy streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury quarter. Bob Dylan is a tycoon. Where, then, have all the flowers gone? Is the New Left just a leftover? And whatever happened to Joan Baez?
Burdened with these and other questions, a visitor raps at the kitchen door of a modest frame house beside a country road on the outskirts of Palo Alto. A housekeeper leads the way into the living room, its casualness mildly tempered by Victorian touches—stained glass panes in the windows, velvet curtains, a rose-colored throw atop a piano. And there, smiling, her raven-black hair glowing in the sun, sits the conscience of her generation—Joan Baez, the folksinger.
“How about some tea?” she offers, catching the housekeeper in the doorway. “The yellow kind, please.”
A lot has happened to America and to Miss Baez in the decade since her glory days as the muse of the ’60s. She has trilled encouragement to long lines of sneaker-shod college youths marching on behalf of equal rights for the Southern black. In the company of a Yale Divinity School associate dean, a Columbia law professor and a Vietnam vet she outraged flag-wavers by traveling to war-torn Hanoi to deliver mail to American prisoners. She has trod the lettuce fields with Cesar Chavez in support of migrant farm workers. Her marriage to activist David Harris disintegrated within ten months of his release after serving 20 months for draft resistance. During Harris’s incarceration, she gave birth to his son Gabriel, now four. More recently she has described herself as “bisexual,” but is unwilling to say more—”until bodies stop floating down the Mekong River. Then I’ll discuss my sexuality.”
At 33, her features are nearly as fresh and fragile as they were during the heyday of Vietnam protest. Indeed, for Joan, resistance to the war did not end with the return of America’s POWs.
“I’m an ‘anti-warhorse,’ ” she says of her continuing work with Amnesty International, an organization founded in London in 1961 and so nonpartisan that William Buckley, the conservative columnist, is listed on its national advisory board along with Miss Baez. A.I.’s goal is to end political torture and to free political prisoners around the world. And the task is demanding enough to occupy nearly all of Joan’s time—”except for concerts for Cesar [Chavez] on an emergency basis.”
It’s almost as if Joan’s gifts as a singer are an embarrassment to her egalitarianism. “I don’t know anything about music,” says Baez whose talents might have made her a millionaire but for her practice of rarely charging more than $2 admission to her infrequent concerts—and then plowing the profits into political causes. “I’m not a musician. Musicians are not politically obsessed.”
While few professionals begrudge her artistry, it is true that her intense political commitment has been discomfitting to some. “Joni Mitchell once said she was scared of me because she didn’t know anything about politics,” remembers Baez of one of her few genuine equals in the world of popularized folk music. “I don’t like being an inhibiting force.”
Nonetheless, ever since the early days, when she would introduce the then unknown Bob Dylan to an audience of Newport or Greenwich Village folkies and launch into a duet of protest songs with him, she has found ways to combine music with her political obsessions.
Dylan, on the other hand, has shed the hair shirt of his once-outspoken social commitment. But Joan refuses to write him off as a latter-day Judas of the Left—perhaps because, as rumor had it, she was his lover in the early ’60s. Asked for her reaction to the box-office bonanza Dylan mined during his recent cross-country tour, Baez hesitated for a moment, carefully weighing the words that would fairly describe him by his own standards. Tugging at the curtain behind her she observed: “Bobby is into music. It was an excellently produced show and Bobby’s magic was undeniable. I’ve written a song about it, saying that the ’60s are over, set Bobby free. Quit waiting for the god. But I loved the concert. He is what they say he is—a charismatic genius.”
Miss Baez rises and throws open the door to a small flagstone terrace off the living room. “How do you like your music?” she asks, turning up the stereo top blast. “I like mine loud!”
The album is her latest—a just released collection of Spanish songs called Gracias a la Vida. “Performing in Spanish to sell in this country sounds stupid,” she says, “but I’m convinced it could be a very commercial thing, if it were promoted right.” Commerce, however, was not her primary incentive for doing the album. The impetus came when the military overthrew Allende’s Marxist government in Chile last year and began imprisoning and executing his supporters. “When the coup took place, we at Amnesty International worked hard to save lives—and we did save some.”
Joan then tells a story, much repeated by opponents of the Chilean junta. “It’s about a Chilean song written by one of the men tortured and killed at the stadium in Santiago during the coup. His name was Victor Jara. People who were there say he kept on singing to keep everyone’s spirit up. The soldiers ordered him to stop, but when he wouldn’t, they ordered him to stand in the middle and sing. Then they cut off his fingers and said, ‘Now play for us.’ While he was trying, they beat him to death.”
But to choose sides in the Chilean coup was not, for Joan, to champion Marxism. Indeed, if an ideology pervades her myriad good works, it might aptly be named Gandhi-ism, though the guru whose impact has been greatest in her life is one Ira Sandperl, a sometime schoolteacher, bookstore proprietor and longtime pacifist. With Sandperl as its president and entire faculty, Joan set up the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence eight years ago, at the time she decided to make her home in Carmel Valley, Calif. The Institute later moved with her to Palo Alto. Presently its roughly 20 students are in recess, at least until the fall, for a period of rest and self-evaluation.
Though Joan Baez never embraced the Quaker faith to which her Mexican-born father and Scottish-born mother converted when she was a child, she claims to have been “a pacifist since I was eight.” She has come to believe that “it does no good polarizing people. Radicals, if they are acting out of fury, are relatively useless.” The woman who in 1964 began refusing to pay “the 60 percent of my taxes that goes to the military”—only to have her bank account attached by the IRS—is not blind to the practical shortcomings of Gandhian resistance. “Nonviolent warfare was only invented 60 years ago,” she observes. “Regular warfare has a 6,000-year start.”
The move to Palo Alto was a coming home for Joan, who lived there during her high school years while her father, a physicist, was teaching at Stanford. Dr. Baez’s appointment jointly to Harvard and MIT in the late ’50s led the family to migrate to the Boston area. There Joan became a fixture of the Cambridge folk scene.
Though her young son Gabriel will be enrolled next year at the same progressive kindergarten Joan attended, at times she despairs that her child will enjoy so rosy a future. “We are so close to disaster. If I said that a year ago, I would have sounded like an alarmist,” says Joan, sounding, nonetheless, like Cassandra. “I now think that I might have to run off with Gabriel to Sweden when he is 10, because this country will have a military coup. Chile went, Argentina will go. They are all interconnected with the American government.”
As suddenly, Joan recalls herself from such dark, far-out thoughts and smilingly invites her visitor to join her at a friend’s home the next day.
The occasion is a reception for members of Amnesty International, honoring the former Swedish ambassador to Chile for his successful rescue of some 1,300 Allende supporters imperiled by the coup. The afternoon is balmy, the champagne goblets generous. Joan’s rich amber velveteen pantsuit is a far cry from the burlap shifts that were once her sartorial hallmark. “This is the closest thing to a coffee house I’ve sung in in a long time,” she chuckles, picking up her guitar as the guests gather round. Then the shiveringly clear soprano rises on the spring air—the voice of a sorceress able to turn champagne into rich black coffee.