GOLDEN OLDIE groupies gather on the rim of the campus quad at American University. They are in their forties and early fifties, battened with memories of protest marches, of Bull Connor, of Lyndon Johnson's Washington. Some wear wide-wale corduroy, others have professorial beards, last touches of 1960s radicalism. A few have taken to farmers' coveralls for the occasion, as if they had just trooped up from the Alabama barricades helping Martin, Andy and Jesse in Selma.

They have come to American University this sun-soaked afternoon to hear Joan Baez sing a free outdoor concert on World Food Day. A swarm of 1,500 students -- 1980s kids sitting on the grass, not smoking it -- are the majority of the crowd. They are building up a full head of politeness, as if half were business majors and the rest debutants. The security guards might as well go home.

While cat-footing around the edge of the seated students, the folkies of the '60s wait patiently for Baez to come out. They are ready to put up with her new songs -- "Warriors of the Sun," "We Are the Children of the '80s," that sort of collage -- but surely she also will deliver "Joe Hill," "With God On Our Side," "We Shall Overcome," "The Times They Are a-Changin'." She'll remember. She'll deliver. Radical Joanie. Sixties Joanie.

Not today. Not tomorrow. A warehouseful of nostalgia may be in the heads of those who knew her when she honeyed the civil rights and peace movements with a voice as pure as her nonviolent goals. But the songs of those days won't be heard live anymore. Seventy minutes after she begins this concert, Joan Baez leaves the stage without a syllable from the past. A hard rain is falling, seeping even through the corduroy.

A WEEK BEFORE, I had invited Baez to talk to the 230 students I teach in evening classes at American University, courses in the politics of nonviolence. We had been discussing a 1965 essay she wrote on pacifism. Baez was on her way to New England to visit her son at boarding school. The concert, unscheduled and unadvertised, was arranged at the last moment by the students. It had been some time -- years -- since Baez, now 44, had sung on a campus.

She confessed to nervousness and -- worse -- being indecisive about what songs to sing. One of them was "Brothers in Arms," which she had recently heard on a Dire Straits album. Several hours before the show, Baez was still trying to learn the melody. At the concert, she sang it for the first time publicly: "I didn't know what I was doing."

After the concert, Baez sits on a sofa eating strawberries, glad that several students have come by to talk. One of them estimates that the crowd was between 1,500 and 2,000. "I quit doing campuses," she says, "because I'm not known on them. It takes a happening of some sort, like today, the hunger issue and the organizing around that.

"This is a transition period for me musically. I sing under different hats. Today I didn't know what it would be. I didn't know what kind of list to make out. I was completely indecisive. It was a new situation for the 1980s. The kids were there around an event and probably because they had heard of me through their parents, and obviously not because I have a hot record out.

"If I appear at something like Live Aid, that's a totally different thing. I'm there because I legitimize what they are doing. The promoters like it because I'm a symbol of something. It doesn't have anything to do with the music. I couldn't hold that crowd for more than 30 seconds . . . I knew the kids would not know 'Amazing Grace,' but I sang that for the other billion and a half people and for the cameras."

IN MOST of her appearances, she refuses to do her '60s material, refuses with a passion, almost a vehemence, that is a personal challenge to herself to move on.

"I don't feel like standing up and singing 'We Shall Overcome' anymore. I'm sick to death of it. I'm sick to death of the way it's been used and overused everywhere for every single cause . . . Living in the '60s makes you just wait. They're not going to happen again. It's the '80s. Take the olive branches out of your hair and the daisies off your chest and look around to see what's going on and work at it."

But what of those kids at the concert who haven't heard "We Shall Overcome" or "Joe Hill"?

"If I'm doing a history class about music, then I'll do those songs. But I'm just fed up with them. Have you ever sung something for 26 years? You'd have a right to be fed up. You get tired of singing something 4,000 times and you want to sing something else. That's really quite simple. Unfortunately, at the moment, the songs of quality to replace them don't exist yet -- new ones that have to do with these kids now. This isn't an age that's going to create those songs. The only song known internationally and done in the '80s is 'We Are the World.' And that's very interesting. It's very childish, ethereal, euphoric, silly, pretty song with a bunch of stars in it. I sort of like it, even. I like hearing them sing it. But that's the only thing that these kinds of times have been able to create."

Since "Honest Lullaby," released in 1979, Baez has not had an American- produced album of new material. It is different in Europe, where she has had two albums in the past five years. The antinuclear movement created by such groups as the Greenham Commons women in England and the Green Party in Germany meant an audience more appreciative of her past commitments to nonviolent defiance of the state.

For Baez, European audiences have often been both loyal and immense -- 100,000 two summers ago in Paris. Seral days after her concert at American University, she was to leave for a tour in Australia and New Zealand, two other areas where the antinuclear movement is vibrant. "I have a drive to be visible," she says. "I don't like being made obscure at a time when I don't feel that what I have to say should be obscured."

Much of what Baez says is expressed through Humanitas International, the Menlo Park, Calif., human rights organization she founded in 1979. She has been a global figure on behalf of political prisoners, whether they are victims of leftist or rightist regimes.

To regain her American audience, Baez is negotiating with an American record company to produce a new album "to get back in the mainstream . . . I may be dead wrong. If it is, I'll know it. Then I'll think, 'What are the alternatives?' One, I'm running out of dough. I'm going to have to keep touring incessantly on tours that do not interest me right now. Something like singing to the kids (at American University) interested me . . . The concerts that bore me are for the people who have grown up with me for 25 years who want to hear the same old songs."

Many of the same old songs, though, were pure folk music. "Folk music will be like jazz," Baez says. "It will have an audience always. It may come forward again. Jazz may come up again to be listened to more broadly. It had a day. Folk music had a day. It was a huge commercial time period. I happened to be around at that moment. That's where my career started at age 18, while my voice goes way beyond those ballads. I started doing more with it within two or three years after I started singing. It was contemporary songs, but then, because I'm a social, political creature, I was looking for songs that were a commentary on the times. There was Dylan, Phil Ochs, and then I started writing my own things. At the moment now, it is very confusing. I can sing anything. I could sing whatever. A record company would love me to say, 'You give me the stuff, and I'll deliver.' And I'll put on the Spandex eyeglasses and underwear matching and whatever you want and I'll go out there and make the kids scream and yell and wave their arms around. But obviously I'm not going to do that. I think my term on earth is relatively short and it does not have to do with trying to just being a star. Yes, I'm frustrated that I'm on a back burner, more so in this country than anywhere else. That's agitating and frustrating. It's been hurtful and my ego has suffered some fairly sizable blows, but that's life. The question is: What do I do now?"

During the concert, Baez, as she always does, spoke with the audience: about nonviolence, whom she's been talking to lately about it, where she's been to bolster those who are practicing it and what risks need to be taken by everyone to advance it. "What was so lovely about the kids today was that they didn't know any of the material that I was singing, which means they really had to listen . . . They have heard my records through their parents and, for whatever reason, they were listening. That's why the talking was as important as the singing. I felt that they were interested in what's going on and what I'm thinking about -- not because these were their favorite songs or I was their favorite singer. That's why it was very difficult to figure out what song to do next and how to communicate best with them and not get tedious or bore them."

AT 8 P.M., 350 students are awaiting Baez in Ward Circle Building 1, an auditorium for classes with large enrollments. The week before we had read "What Would You Do If?," Baez's 1965 essay. It's Gandhi for beginners. The class is varicolored: students from at least 25 countries, ones who will graduate owing $15,000, some who are regular protesters at the South African Embassy, a few who are leaders in the campus chapters of the Young Americans for Freedom and the Young Republicans club, several who volunteer at literacy programs to teach reading and several more whose volunteering at soup kitchens defies the image of 1980s college kids as apathetic careerists. For me, they are a delight every Wednesday evening.

When Baez walks in, the students applaud strenuously. She sits on the edge of the stage and rests her legs on a chair below. For the first few minutes she tells of her childhood and going to Quaker meetings with her family. Baez speaks conversationally as if in a group of three or four. The students didn't know what to expect, but Baez's unaggressive manner and soft tone engage them.

"When I was very young," she begins, "my father and mother became Quakers. What that means is that you sit for one hour a week in silence. That had a profound effect on my father. At that time, he was a physicist who had begun making a reasonable amount of money for the first time in his life. But it was with the Defense Department, and he realized that he would have to give up either the Quaker meetings or the job. The silence had gotten to him. So he gave up the job. He became a teacher, and fell in love with teaching and taught all his life.

" . . . At 9 years old I knew I was well-fed, warm, comfy and loved by my parents. I assumed that everyone else was like that. I did not like being hurt or made uncomfortable or ill or hungry or cold. That may be a very pompous conclusion to come to when you are 9 years old, but I based my politics on that for the rest of my life. The passion has always been (to) engage my voice, which is my gift. I have absolutely no modesty about it at all. I think it is a tremendous set of chops. I have great humility because I don't consider that that has much to do with me at all. I consider it a gift, and I have tried to use it as a gift and to benefit people in the world one way or another . . . As I grew older, I tried to find the least sappy way to relate to the human condition and see how I could put myself to use. I was radicalized at age 16 into radical nonviolence -- as opposed to conventional pacifism or personal pacifism. Radical nonviolence means that you go out and do it in the streets and in the jails. That's been more or less my life." BAEZ, either in private conversation or before groups, is not comfortable rattling on. She told the students that she wanted to learn what was on their minds. She stopped her talking and asked for questions.

What, it was asked, was she doing personally, as against professionally, to improve the world through her music? "I've tried voluntary poverty three times in my life, and have given it up after a weekend. In a very honest way, it is not part of me: I gave away all my clothes, all my goodies and then, after a week, went out and bought them all back. I'm not Gandhi. I've been a vegetarian on and off. When I ran a place called the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, vegetaians would come in. They were very pious. They wanted to know how we could even think about nonviolence and eat meat. Well, I found it was quite simple. Gandhi said it was much more important what came out of your mouth than what went in . . .

"When I realized that some of my friends were going into the full lotus position and eating nuts and grains for a year and a half I asked what else are they doing. Their priority had really become what-went-in- and-what-came-out . . . I don't think that has much of an effect on the lives of people who are in need."

Her willingness to be personal brought out questions about her private life. The costs of being an entertainer are immense, she said. "It is impossible for me to live successfully with somebody. I was married for three short years. Part of that is the business of being an entertainer. You get 5,000 people clapping for you and you go home and say, 'Hey, why isn't my husband standing on the table cheering for me?' He wants his dinner done a certain way. I never worked that out very well, and I never bothered really trying . . . I think that if I didn't have this public life, the other things might have come more easily. I miss them. I may have very lonely periods, but I don't think the loneliness is anything different from what everyone else has. I assume that our biggest problem is death and, after that, loneliness. I would like on my tombstone the words, 'She was a good mom.' When I look around and see how some entertainers handle their children and their families, it scares me. I don't think they take it seriously. It's a monumental thing to do to bring a child into this world."

Baez is opinionated, but her ridiculing is done with a sigh rather than meanness:

On the campaign to clean up rock 'n' roll lyrics: "It's so typically American. Americans love to get hysterical . . . As far as putting the words of the songs on the albums, I think that's wonderful. Young people would read again."

On South Africa: "The chain of violence never stops. That's my terrible fear for South Africa, that if we do a typically white liberal trip and say, 'Yeah, man, there's an armed struggle going on and we have to get behind that and send our money,' what are we saying? Are we really okaying black children burning their black brothers and sisters and then burning whites? That is not going to bring about the kind of government or democracy or human decency that any black South African wants."

On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mississippi: "I remember going (with Andrew Young and others) to pick up Martin Luther King at the airport in Grenada (Miss.), and I thought, 'Oh boy, now I'm really going to hear how you plan the movement.' They told nigger jokes from the airport on in, for about an hour . . . They were so happy. I was talking to Andy Young the other day. I asked him about that. I said, 'Andy, I thought you guys were going to plan the movement. He said, 'That's what we were doing.'

The '70s. "They were difficult years for me. I did lots of things, but I didn't have direction. I feel as though I'm only beginning to come out of that now. The spirit never died. It's very difficult for many of you. Twenty years ago you wouldn't have said, 'What shall I do?' It was right in front of your face. You just went and did it. There was a handle with the Vietnam war or civil rights. And now it's so diffuse. I think part of the answer is that you don't always stay bubbling. I'm trying at age 44 to understand a little bit about patience about the pendulum, which I do think has swung so far off to the right that it's no longer measurable on a graph. People say: What are we going to do with our lives? We're gasping for breath. I am. I'm trying to keep my feet on the ground. And find out where the ground is . . . Patience is a part of it, and there's the line from e.e. cummings: 'For us, there is only the trying, and the rest is not our business.'

BAEZ was offering herself as a person of 1985. The Baez of 1965, the one remembered by her contemporaries in the audience, was not there. In the 1980s, Baez the singer is still less important than Baez the advocate for nonviolence. She did not let the students at American University forget that. Most answers to their political questions were based on the need to study pacifism and practice it when the moment came.

"The difficulty with introducing nonviolence is that it is so young," she told a Lebanese student. "It is much more difficult to organize nonviolence. Our first reactions as people are usually not very good ones. We react viscerally. We react thoughtlessly . . . My feeling is that (nonviolence) begins with the concept that we can no longer solve the problems in any realistic way with violence. I would say just the opposite from what most people say to me, 'But you're unrealistic to talk about nonviolence.' I would say to them, 'You've been unrealistic for 8,000 years.'

Give me a chance! I do not blame a black South African 12-year-old for hurling a gasoline bomb at somebody. I blame myself and those of us in the nonviolent community who have not come up yet with stronger (nonviolent) patterns of warfare, more ideas. Why does nonviolence give out at a certain point? Because it's new, it's scary, it's unknown. People are not willing to die without some kind of weapon in their hands.

"You take nonviolent warfare someplace in the world and people go at it through strikes or boycotts for a two-week period. At the end of the two weeks if five people get killed, the reaction is, 'I told you it wouldn't work.' But if you take armed struggle -- where you feel as though you're defending yourself because you have those conventional weapons -- and you fight in the streets for two weeks, at the end of the two weeks, 20,000 people are dead. Nobody says, 'I told you, it wouldn't work.' They say, 'That's a war.'

IN HER emotional life, Baez appears to be happiest when caught up in small groups of trusted friends. She is aural -- a listener who puts her ear to conversations and sounds them out for whatever truth or guidance can be found.

She remembers conversations of 10 or 20 years ago. Rarely is an idea from a book referred to, as if that would project her as an intellectual. It is also because, as she acknowledges, she has read few books in recent years.

That, and the schedule of an industrious nomad, caught up with her in 1983. After a concert tour, she took a retreat. "I went back home and worked a couple of days a week on a farm and milked cows, to see whether I'd lost my mind or what. I just felt this great need to be 'back to the earth.' I suspect hat I was so wired with traveling and felt so rootless that getting back to simplicity -- farm, cows, whatever -- would cure that. But at the same time, I had this huge drive to be around people and speak with them. I would have been isolating myself. I would have had to import anybody I wanted to share ideas with."

The plans for solitude and conversation -- a yin and yang of mental stimulation -- did not help. "It was a withdrawal," she now says.

What Baez is going through now -- the invigoration of getting back to a campus, the pleasures of being among kids who care about learning nonviolence -- she may be able to figure out only after a few years. She can only guess what it all means now.

Perhaps in a few years Joan Baez will look back and know that this was the moment of her reemergence.