August 10, 1987 12:00 PM

by Joan Baez

Like some folk music incarnation of a goddess, she rose from the cozy coffeehouses of Boston and Greenwich Village with her crystalline soprano warble. She introduced us to the genius of Bob Dylan. Impetuously she married draft resister David Harris, who was jailed for 20 months while she protested the war, sang at Woodstock and had their son, Gabe. Now 46, the madonna (that’s a lower case “m”) of the folk era looks back on her life with disarming candor in this autobiography. Of half-Scottish, half-Mexican ancestry, Baez was a dark outsider during much of her childhood in California. Singing was her ticket to popularity. In high school she bought a $50 Gibson guitar. Later she quit Boston University and played the coffeehouse circuit until she made the mainstream at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Although onstage Baez radiated confidence, she was plagued by neuroses and gave away much of her wealth to people and causes. Time and therapy have given her a measured wisdom. She realizes now that some of her generosity was triggered by misguided guilt. She can say of her onetime lover Dylan, “We have, and had; almost nothing in common, except that he was my mystic brother; we had been street twins, bound together by times and circumstances.” What makes Baez striking today is that while the times were a changin’, she did not. Her Quaker upbringing seems to have given her a kind of moral compass that is not affected by the uncompassionate direction of our times. As the rest of us were struggling to recover from youth-culture burnout, she continued working for human rights and peace. She lobbied for Cambodian refugees, helped found Amnesty International’s West Coast branch and demonstrated for Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared. If Phil Ochs was the soul of the folk era, she was its heart. Offstage, though, Baez comes across as immature; she writes blithely of striding up to Don Johnson at the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia and blurting out, “Hello, gorgeous. Could we discuss the possibility of rape?” (Since her 1973 divorce from Harris, Baez has not sustained a lasting relationship with a man.) Her writing is flat-footed and sometimes careless; she alludes to her late brother-in-law, Richard Farina, a songwriter-novelist, without explaining who he was. And except for her description of Woodstock she hardly tries to re-create the ambiance of the times she chronicles. Still her persistence is undeniable. Two years ago the younger generations who turned on the Live Aid benefit in Philadelphia were greeted by her: “Good morning, children of the ’80s! This is your Woodstock….” (Summit, $19.95)

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