For 60 years, Joan Baez traveled the world raising her clear soprano voice, in song and in protest. But in 2018 she toured for the last time, and came home to a little slice of paradise near San Francisco.
Along with singing, Baez has been drawing upside-down and writing backwards since she was a kid, and now she's put her drawings in a book, "Am I Pretty When I Fly?" She's also been painting portraits.
And she's taking a fresh look at herself, in a new documentary opening in theaters nationwide next week, called "Joan Baez I Am a Noise." She said it was suggested at the start to do a film about her last tour. "And I decided I really wanted to leave an honest legacy, you know, about everything," Baez said. "And so, that's when I gave the directors a key to my storage unit."
Her mother had saved everything: home movies, letters, drawings. But Baez had never even looked at it. The moment in the film when she walks into the storage unit is, she said, the first time she'd ever been.
To watch a trailer for "Joan Baez I Am a Noise," click on the video player below:
Baez's public life is well-documented: forty studio and live albums, just about every music honor there is (including her 2017 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), and decades of concerts, marches, and human rights causes.
She performed at the 1963 March on Washington. Smith asked, "Were you hopeful then?"
"I was smart then," Baez replied. "And I was smart enough to know that We shall overcome did not mean probably in this lifetime. So, I was dug in. I mean, I knew this was going to be a long battle."
In the 1960s she toured with a fellow warrior, Bob Dylan. They fell in love, but it didn't last. She said he broke her heart. "It was probably the deepest I've ever felt for somebody. A little clue to that is, I think, when somebody walks away from you, you feel a lot more than if you walk away from them. And I got walked away from in a big way, and it was hard to get over."
In 1967 Baez was arrested for blocking entrances to military induction centers in Oakland, California. The journalist and anti-Vietnam war activist David Harris visited her in jail. They got married, she got pregnant, then he went to prison.
"That is a rough way to start a marriage," said Smith.
"Yeah, it was not ideal way to start. And for me, you know, somebody who wanted to be a perfect wife and a perfect mother and all of that, none of it really was possible."
It was at this point in the interview when the chickens came to the door. It seems fitting that Joan Baez has a flock of chickens. She says she does better with crowds than one-on-one. "The one-on-one was too difficult," she said. "The one-on-two-thousand? Not such a problem."
She and David Harris divorced amicably in 1973, and she's happily single. "I don't want to take on one more thing, like trying to find the appropriate partner," she said. "It seems such an exhausting idea that I said, 'I quit.'"
Baez and her son, Gabriel, have stayed close. But she says her relationship with her own parents was complicated, and her mental health often suffered.
In the documentary, Baez reveals that, as adults, she and her sister Mimi came to believe that their father had been sexually inappropriate with them when they were children. She can't remember all the details, and her parents both denied it happened.
Baez said, "Many parents who've been involved in this cycle and their kids accuse them, they don't remember. I wanted to remember; I couldn't 'til I was 50 years old. And they had blocked it out."
But now that her parents and her sister are gone, Baez felt it was a secret she needed to share.
"Most people with a lot of this stuff are not gonna talk about it," she said. "And then, you can't really heal, I don't think, without being able to express yourself. The letting the secrets out and the way we did it has opened some doors for people, which is, like, icing on the cake for me."
And here's another, less painful secret she's just now sharing with us: at 82, Joan Baez has a new voice. "I've discovered really recently that I'm happy in this little pocket of vocalizing. It's really, really low. It's a blessing. I've been enjoying it."
Baez is still using her voice in other ways, too. In June she went with a children's non-profit to Ukraine. But the woman who spent most of her life on the road and in the trenches has found a certain quiet she never knew before.
Smith asked, "Are you at peace?"
"I would say, yeah," Baez replied. "I mean, I'm able to conduct myself in a certain way that I feel at peace with a lot of things I wouldn't have dreamed. I finally realized I don't have to solve everybody's problems, and make world peace, and do a concert all at once, you know?
"What a relief!" she laughed. "I can breathe instead."
For more info:
- "Joan Baez I Am a Noise," in theaters beginning October 6
- "Am I Pretty When I Fly?: An Album of Upside Down Drawings" by Joan Baez (David R. Godine), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Carol Ross.
for more features.