“What becomes a legend most?” a 1960s ad campaign used to ask. For Joan Baez, the answer is change. After all, the voice of the boomer generation has been through several wringers and managed to move along with the changing times. From the archetypal, willowy folkie strumming “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the pregnant, short-haired antiwar figure who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at Woodstock to a wistful hit-record chronicler of that passing idealistic era on “Diamonds and Rust,” Baez has morphed impressively. And that only takes us to the 1980s. “I think we spend half of our time reinventing ourselves in this business,” laughed the singer, speaking from her Woodside home last week about the series of shared tours she has been conducting for some time now. The model pairs Baez with musicians like Indigo Girls, who may not seem cutting edge now but help to bring a younger-than-yesterday crowd out to the shows.
The hand of change is still moving around her, too. I asked her if it has been an unreasonably bad year, seeing how she lost two close friends, Pete Seeger and Steve Jobs. “And don’t forget my mother,” she added. “You know, she just turned 100, and I asked her before her birthday what she wanted. And she said, ‘to drop dead.’ Well, she got that.”
Baez seems resolute, almost bouncy, even after all these years. “When you ask about Pete, I owe him almost everything. When I was young, my favorite kind of music was rhythm and blues, and my parents were sure I was going to become a black drug addict,” she laughed. “And then they took me to a Pete Seeger concert. I don’t even remember what he played, but it changed my life.” Even then, she said, Seeger and she ultimately differed about her commitment to pacifism. She’s also disappointed in Barack Obama for his role in international militarism, even though he was the first person she ever endorsed as a candidate. “I think it just goes with that terrible job. Maybe he will start a movement after he leaves office,” she pondered. On top of other disappointments, Baez struggled with her voice recently, until a vocal coach got her in touch with a rehabilitation therapist. “I hoped it would be something simple like a polyp,” she said. What she learned through retraining her voice was “to be happy with what I have left. After a couple of sessions, I was singing again, and I was happy.”
The tour pairings come from another accommodation to the way life changes. “Twenty years ago, I thought my career was over. I couldn’t even get a label at that time. It seemed everybody revered the legend, but nobody wanted the singer,” she said. “I have this very clever manager, Mark Spector, who realized it.” His solution was simple: Ring in the new. “We started with the Indigo Girls back then, but I also did shows with Dar Williams and Steve Earle. And now we’re back to the Indigo Girls, the oldest of the new,” she laughed. “Today they sent me three songs to learn, and I think it goes so well in the part of the show where we all sing together. At least, that’s the part I like the best.”
Baez remains constant in one thing: Her world needs work to get better. “I’m a pessimist,” she said, even given the giant strides that made an Obama presidency and gay marriage possible in these United States. There is still much to be done. “I think I agree with Jimmy Carter, who said that the Tea Party represents the fact that as a nation, we’re not really that far down the road yet.”
Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) on Wednesday, July 2, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.