Colman McCarthy, a former Post editorial writer and columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, a Washington nonprofit.
Thanks to my loving 40-year friendship with Joan Baez and her innate generosity, she has given concert tickets to my college and high school students and me well more than two dozen times in Washington sites ranging from Wolf Trap to the Kennedy Center, plus after-show passes to meet backstage for conversations.
The latest get-together was in April at the Warner Theatre, where a sold-out audience of 1,800 relished her set of 21 songs and three encores. The evening was part of a Fare Thee Well Tour, the tapering of a career that began when, at age 17, she took her glistering soprano voice and guitar to sing ballads at the Club 47 coffee house in Cambridge, Mass. The payment was $5 a gig. The next year, in 1959, she was onstage before an audience of thousands at the Newport Folk Festival and well on her way to glory as America’s queen of folk music, specializing in songs of peace and social justice that marked her personal commitment to pacifism.
In 1984, I invited Baez to speak to my afternoon class at the School Without Walls, then and now a haven of quality education. She couldn’t make the 1 p.m. slot but no matter: Instead, she sent the class 30 tickets to the Lisner Auditorium concert and passes to meet for an after-show discussion-based seminar on Gandhian nonviolence. I prepped the students by having them research Baez’s life and the needle that threaded together her work as a risk-taking antiwar activist and human rights advocate.
In her reflective essay “A Question of Adhesion,” Baez wrote: “Looking back on it, I think I got more ouT of that meeting than I did out of anything else I did during the [whole two-month] tour.”
She needed little time to realize that the Walls students were “economically and politically mixed, fairly knowledgeable and very bright. . . . But of all we talked about that evening, the one thought that struck me the most, and which moved me to realize that it was time to reorganize my life once again, was a very simple one. It came from a sixteen-year-old boy whose ‘punk’ styles included blond spikes in his hair, black jeans and a leather jacket. He sat casually near me on a couch, his motorcycle helmet in his lap. He called himself Dante, and he was clearly well-liked by the rest of the class. He had mused, participated, joked and now seemed to sum things up. ‘You see, you guys in the sixties had everything. You had the music, the issues, the symbols, the momentum. You had each other; you had glue. We are missing that. We don’t have any glue.’ ”
It wasn’t long in my Walls class before Dante’s insights and wit stood out. He came on as a budding punk-rocker, a drummer in a couple of bands. I admired his fervor for music, so much so that I encouraged him to stop wasting time in high school, forced to take useless and boring algebra and geometry courses: Go follow your dream for a career in music.
Sure enough, he did, dropping out of Walls and never going to college. Today, Dante Ferrando is 51 and, for the past 25 years, the owner and chief executive of the thriving Black Cat night club, a fixture in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood with some 25 employees.
Of the meeting with the Walls class and how it touched her, Baez wrote in the Adhesion piece: “There was unanimous agreement in the room and I saw instantly that [Dante’s] statement rang true not only for young people, but certainly for me, and, as I have found since that evening, for practically everyone I meet. We are all so caught up in our individual problems and struggles that we have no attachment to others whose problems and struggles are so very much like our own. We need some common bonding ingredient — some social and political ‘glue’. . . . Following that conversation, at the remaining concerts on the tour, I began testing this notion. ‘I know there are intelligent people all over the world,’ I would say. ‘It’s just that we have to discover each other.’ Audiences seemed to respond with enthusiasm and relief.”
The discovery goes on as Baez’s current tour winds down. Warner Theatre was the 12th stop of a 17-city tour in the United States. This month, she’s touring Europe. After that, at 78, it’s back to her home in Woodside, Calif. — not to retire, but to rewire.