There are few revolutionary musical figures more iconic and enduring than Joan Baez, the legendary folk singer who plays the Arlington Theatre Thursday, November 3. With her deeply beautiful voice and impassioned political activism, Baez quickly became a leading spokesperson for the ’60s countercultural movements as she decried discrimination at home and wars abroad through the power of song. With her interpretation of works by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, The Band, and many more, her unflinching dedication to her causes shone through a voice so stirring it could prompt thousands into civic action. Of the flower-power generation, she was one of the main architects and one of its wisest.
In 2016, Baez remains true to form. She will arrive in S.B. with representatives of the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to absolving the falsely accused from wrongful imprisonment, and is dedicating her tour to raise awareness of those incarcerated souls. When selecting the Innocence Project, Baez initially didn’t know if it was quite the right cause, what with so many pressing issues around which to rally. She found, instead, an issue that has been felt at every tour stop, with audiences coming forward with stories of justice improperly served. The Innocence Project, she said, helps “bring people in touch with their justice system — I use that term loosely — with racial disparity, mass arrest, and torture,” she said.
In her lifetime, Baez has observed a simultaneous wider “awareness of human rights violations” and “a massive turn to the right which we may be avoiding by the skin of our teeth somehow.” She finds Donald Trump “just a nutcase, and he’s seriously sort of pathologically off,” but she is glad, at least as of press time, that Trump’s star seems to have dulled considerably; “It’s a lucky quirk we may be spared from a Hitlerian regime,” she said. Noting it is never beyond the actions of an otherwise rich culture or intelligent populace to elect a dictatorial politician in times of economic woe — “The bigger the lie, the more people believe it” — Baez sees America’s anti-immigration, pro-torture stances as cyclical. “I do think there is a pendulum thing, and this kind of happens. You do the best you can… whatever the situation, you do the best you can,” she said.
Musically, Baez has adapted to the times, exploring material that is “quirky, under the radar, and sort of wonderful”; the evening will not be “any blatant series of message songs at all.” Listeners can expect to hear tunes from contemporary artists such as Anohni (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Josh Ritter, plus troubadours like Tom Waits and Richard Thompson, along with older favorites from the 1960s.
Offstage, Baez has turned her focus to painting; in fact, it’s her main passion. With her mother and sister both having passed away recently, Baez is “the last of the line now.” “It’s a beginning of a process,” she said, recalling the way her mother would scratch out the names in her address book of those who died. She hopes to bring her granddaughter to an elephant reserve in Thailand, to offer her a glimpse of a fleeting world. “I cannot imagine at this rate that we’re going to be around very long,” Baez said of global warming. “My heart breaks for the birds, mainly.”
Times are a-changin’, as they always were, but Baez is unchanged in the beliefs that have carried her in life, “sticking to the ideals that I think are right” and doing well with her remaining years. “I’m trying to make the most of my time,” she said.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents a performance by Joan Baez, Thursday, November 3, 8 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Call 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com.