Joan Baez has been one of the leading voices in folk music since she burst on scene as a barefoot teen at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. She marked her 75th birthday in January with an all-star New York concert taped for broadcast on PBS in June and is now touring, with a stop at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., on Wednesday.
Baez helped to introduce Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, has released more than 30 albums, and can claim such hits as a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and her own “Diamonds and Rust.” But she is just as well known for her activism, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Her current tour is in conjunction with Amnesty International and its campaign against racial and ethnic disparities of incarceration.
The Washington Post spoke with Baez this week from the road in Ithaca, N.Y., about almost quitting a few years ago, adjusting to a new voice, the political climate, and the time last summer when Taylor Swift brought her onstage.
Q: For you, did the activism come before the music or was it always entwined?
A: My parents became Quakers so I was introduced to that meditation, the belief that human beings come before flags and nation-states, and nonviolence was my foundation. That sank in pretty well by the time I was 10. By the time I was 13, when I picked up the ukulele and I started to sing. I wouldn’t say it was second nature, it was really first nature that the two came together. And I’ve always been the most comfortable mixing the two.
Q: Was there a single moment of inspiration toward this path?
A: I would say I was already in that path, but a couple of things come to mind. We used to have high school get-togethers with kids from all over the country put on by the activist wing of the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee. And when I was 16, the guest speaker was King. And I was completely overwhelmed because I had been studying nonviolence, talking about it, reading about it, but here it was happening, here it was people boycotting the buses and people on the streets and taking risks, which I think was the key. Social change really cannot happen unless people are willing to take a risk, and they were. And I was so moved by that, and of course by the way that he spoke, that made a huge dent in my belief system and my spirit.
Back then I was still listening to rhythm and blues, and my aunt took me to see a Pete Seeger concert. And it gelled. He made all the sense in the world to me. I got addicted to his albums, and then Belafonte and Odetta — they were the people who seemed to fuse things that were important to me into music. I think Pete the most because he did what he did to the point where he took those enormous risks and then paid for them.
Q: You became fully immersed in the folk scene when your family moved from California to Boston.
A: That was sheer luck that it happened when my voice began to develop. I don’t know exactly what would have happened if I hadn’t been alive and well and really lively in the Cambridge scene. But [the folk scene] was, and I fell into it absolutely naturally in the little coffee shops, and pretty soon it was Newport and then it was an overwhelming response internationally, actually.
Q: You knew so many old folk songs as a teenager. Was there a lot of studying involved?
A: No. They were the songs people were singing. I didn’t study anything really. I didn’t learn out of the books because I couldn’t read music very well, so it is what they say it is — you learn from other people. And my cohorts and I would sneak around the coffee shops and hear stuff we wanted to learn, and then you ask whoever was playing it to teach you. And then also from albums. I remember listening to Lead Belly and a couple of his songs, the deep Southern blues, I managed to put them somewhere in the repertoire for a little while.
Q: In turn, you’ve introduced new songwriters to your audience throughout your career.
A: It was pretty natural to do. It wasn’t exactly one-sided, particularly recently, because I quit writing more than 25 years ago, so I’ve depended on the friends I’ve made, the younger ones, people like the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams, more than a couple handful of people.
Q: Why did you stop writing songs?
A: I wish it was clear for me how it happened, then maybe I could start writing again. But it’s kind of an “it.” It just submerged itself. Because the way I had always written was just that it came out. It just happened. Or I’d hear a tune in my head and the words would come. And then, very suddenly it just stopped. It seemed too stilted to try and learn how to write a song, to go to round robins and to learn things from other people on how to write a song. So I just stopped and did other things.
Q: Are you open to the possibility of writing again?
A: If It came back I would be thrilled. I would be delighted to write more songs. I need them now because I want to make an album and I have to depend on other people’s music, which I’ve done for years. But still, it’d be really nice to be able to sprinkle it with my own.
Q: Is it a rigorous process to find songs to sing?
A: Somebody else does the rigor and then I listen. I have an assistant, and my manager, and other people who hunt and find and send it to me, and then I just figure out which ones I can do justice to. Like the last album [2008’s “Day After Tomorrow”] was with Steve Earle and we had collected almost all of the songs, three of them were his, and then things like [Tom Waits’s] “Day After Tomorrow” is a natural. You hear it once and that makes sense to do. And then some take some listening to get used to, or a song might be absolutely beautiful but it doesn’t work with my voice. And my voice now is a struggle, it’s a daily struggle to keep it up. Gravity has begun to fight the vocal cords the way it does with everybody. So I have a vocal therapist, and we record the sessions and I use them on tour every day.
Q: What is that process like?
A: I think I would have had an easier time of it if I had had training much earlier. Because when I got to the training, it was in my late 30s and I already probably had every bad habit a singer could have. In fact, it still goes on. It’s un-training those habits and retraining new ones — the breathing, the relaxation, the tongue, the lungs, the everything. A few years ago, I was going to stop. I thought, “This is crazy.” It didn’t sound like what I wanted to hear; the vibrato isn’t what I liked anymore. So I got myself to an ear, nose and throat guy who does a lot of work with singers, and I was hoping there was a big wart on my vocal cords or something and they could scrape it off and I could have the voice I wanted. But he said, “No, for 71, that’s your voice.”
So half of the job was admitting to myself that I was never going to sound the way I did when I was 40. Once I’d accepted that, he said, “You want to work with my vocal therapist?” And she just gave me a whole new toolbox to work with. And it became exciting again and fun again.
Q: Do you have to approach your old songs a different way now?
Q: What is the reaction from your audience?
A: Some people don’t even notice. “Oh, you sound exactly like you did!” And I say, “Okay, if that’s what you want to believe, that’s fine.” I love the lower ranges of my new voice. I really enjoy that. It’s a challenge, and I accept the challenge. I sort of enjoy it now to reach notes that maybe four years ago I couldn’t reach. I don’t mean to grumble about it. I’m past that critical period and have gone on to a whole new field. And we go everywhere. We travel around the world, and I learn songs from every place we go, and it’s a joyful process.
Q: This tour takes you to Birmingham, Ala., Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta with this tour. What’s it like to sing your biggest hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” down there?
A: That’s something I have to think about. My guess is they don’t really care. It’s a famous song, and fame in this country really beats everything. So what I’ll do probably is ask around a little bit. If people bristle then I’ll know to leave it out. And I don’t always do that. We have substitutes for that and it’s not a necessity.
Q: You endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Will you be endorsing anyone for president this time?
A: No. You know, that was really very unique and not exactly my cup of tea in general. I don’t regret it. I’ve never seen anybody have to battle what he’s battled. But it was the one time in my life, and I can’t imagine getting that involved in party politics.
Q: You don’t put much regard in party politics?
A: No, I don’t. I think sometimes it’s helpful, but for the most part that’s what gotten us into the dilemma that we’re in. There are good guys, and there are congressional people who are good guys, and I certainly vote in those elections. You know, my fondest dream would be if Obama, when he got out of office, decided he was going to go back and organize on the streets. He’d be the only person I could imagine who could really create a movement similar to what King did, and God knows we need that now.
Q: What do you make of the current political . . .
A: Circus? It’s like a Jerry Springer show. It’s entertaining, it’s insane and it’s sick and it’s nasty, and I’m like a lot of people: I can’t resist watching it. And then I turn it off and try to do something decent. Anything. Like have a cup of coffee.
I think Hillary is going to battle on through, but you see how little attention the Democrats are paid because people like the entertainment. And I know that it’s frustrating for conservatives; they can’t stop Trump. And I don’t know what he is. He looks like Mussolini and he seems to be having a jolly time. I can’t even imagine what would happen if he were elected. I can’t imagine.
Q: The last picture I saw of you was onstage at a Taylor Swift concert. How did that occur?
A: I wanted to get tickets for my granddaughter. They were very gracious. It turns out that Taylor is a big fan and appreciator of my music and what I’ve meant over the years. And when we were given VIP status, she said, “You want to come out onstage in the middle?”
Q: Do you wish younger artists had more socially conscious songs or would use their fame to further causes?
A: Of course I do. The difference is being a risk taker and non-risk-taker. I don’t think in [Swift’s] situation there’s been anything that she would consider having any risk to it. She’s a good person. She’s good for kids. But that’s very limited in what social change we need.
Joan Baez performs Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 West Patrick St., Frederick, Md. 301-600-2828. weinbergcenter.org. $45-$58.50.