Thursday, October 15, 2009

Joan Baez

I first heard Joan Baez sing in 1962. I had just crossed the Atlantic for the first time, and was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was fairly newly married, and my wife and I were expecting our first child. My wife fell in love with the voice and we played the record constantly on the little portable stereo--brand new at the time!--in the tiny apartment we had rented on Edinburgh Street. We had perhaps a half dozen records in all, and this was certainly the favorite. I recall the haunting, melancholy quality of those old folk songs she used to sing, about love and loss and strange pain of it all.

I recall those moments now with an acute memory for that pain--the voice brought back by the Joan Baez installment of the American Masters series on PBS. The pain has to do with the passage of time, certainly, and the way we have all aged, Joan herself becoming more graceful, more mellow, of course, and perhaps even more beautiful with the years; but also, for me, with the memory of that time, my own subsequent failures that led to a separation and eventual divorce.

All this came back to me as we watched the special last night, along with a lot I either do not remember or never knew, precisely because I was new this side of the Atlantic in h
er early years. I did not live in the US until the mid-1960s, and was not at all familiar with the cultural environment in which most of my American contemporaries grew up. I was not aware, I think, of the depth to which this remarkable woman was involved in the Civil Rights movement, nor of her close association with Dr. Martin Luther King. I learned from the program last night of her extraordinarily courageous participation in the movement, not only lending her celebrity and her talent to the cause, but putting herself at risk in the front lines of the sometimes brutal action.

I did know more about her involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement, her calling upon young men to surrender or burn their draft cards, to resist government efforts to enlist them. She endured not only the rigors of jail on several occasions, but also the rank abuse of some of those men she sought to persuade of the futility of the war. She put herself at risk again in her visit to North Vietnam to meet with and deliver letters to US prisoners of war, where she lived for eleven frightening days under a blizzard of US bombs. Moving footage of her and her comrades from the period suggested how deep that experience went, how much it changed and saddened her.

Baez's preaching and practice of non-violence seemed to come not from some desire to capitalize on the huge name she had made for herself with her music, but rather from a clear and principled conviction in its underlying morality. There were times, surely, when she was confused about herself, and by the gap between her private and public personae; but she was never confused about what she stood for, nor afraid to take the stand.

Another thing: I did not know about her visit in the 1990's to war-ravaged Sarajevo, to show solidarity with those suffering from the violence there. A lovely sequence followed her meeting with a brave cellist, who would take his cello out into the dangerous streets to play for whoever was there to listen; and how she then took his chair in the middle of a shell-scarred street to sing "Amazing Grace"--not the act of someone craving for attention, but of someone who wanted nothing more or less than to show her sympathy with the plight of other human beings.

I was deeply, almost painfully humbled by this documentary. This woman has managed to do so much, to share so much of her talent, to plead so often for the cause of humanity in a world where human rights are trampled on mercilessly by the power-hungry, the bigoted, and the ruthless. In her songs, she manages to put us all in touch with the sadness and the pain that characterizes too much human experience of the world, and she does it with a grace and gentleness that do credit, finally, to the human spirit.

8 comments:

mandt said...

It was a wonderful program---particularly enjoyed "Diamonds and Rust." Joan has in many ways touched the lives of all Americans. I remember her from the Oakland days and the connection of our San Francisco Liberation Commune to David Harris. That interview with the two of them was priceless.

robin andrea said...

Roger and I watched this show last night, as well, and were as deeply moved by it. We were struck by her incredible youth when she first began singing, and her utter commitment to non-violence long and stunning throughout her career. She has never wavered from her most deeply held beliefs, and her voice is true. A truly touching show.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Joan is one of my all time favorite people. I shall now put one of her CDs on so I can hear her beautiful voice.

Anonymous said...

Like you Peter, I was so moved by that program. Even tho' I was a "flower child", I did not realize then how deeply she was involved in the civil rights movement. She has aged so gracefully, but has such a tender touch of sadness about her now. You always seem to put in words how I am feeling. Thank you, Betzy

Gary said...

My boys were astonished to learn that someone so kind, wise and giving could make such difference by
staying on the path of truth under all the conditions
of social and political unrest she faced. Her non- violent commitment with others who joined Dr Martin Luther King to establish the rights of all people by
giving their time, art and in some cases their life brought my oldest boy Cole to tears. She is our stunning and beautiful star of freedom that shines on all of us each time she sings or speaks. We can all learn from her example forever.

pix-a-daisy said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this amazing show. I made sure to Tivo when I saw it listed in this months PBS booklet. She's one of the few people (women) able to inspire, with both great emotion and raw honesty, and not appear lacking in any way for doing so. A champion to me in every way.

PeterAtLarge said...

It seems like we all gathered around the TV for this wonderful event. She can still bring us together...

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have always loved Joan Baez. She was in the forefront of fights in which I, too, participated, for Civil Rights and for peace, and she never did it for any reason but her own strong convictions. She is an American treasure.