Singer, songwriter and activist Joan Baez has been thrilling audiences – and making them think – for over sixty years now.
Her music has become a soundtrack for nonviolence, civil rights and environmentalism – and she was one of the first artists to record and advocate for the work of a then much less popular Bob Dylan in the early 1960s.
Baez released her latest album, "Whistle Down the Wind", in March of last year – her first in nearly a decade. And she’s embarking on a tour that she says will be her last.
Alex AuBuchon - Ms. Baez, thank you so much for speaking with me and I hope the tour planning is going well so far.
Joan Baez - It’s going beautifully, thank you.
AA - So I want to go right to the tour, because you’ve been so active and prolific as a singer and musician for decades now – how did you come to that decision that this was the time to hang it up, so to speak?
JB - Well, it’s very simple, actually. Years ago, in my 30s, I was seeing a wonderful vocal coach, an older guy, and I just said one day, “How will I know when it’s time for me to stop singing?” He said, “Your voice will tell you.” And though I love my voice right now, and though I love it on the album, and I’m having fun with it in the concerts, at the same time, it gets more and more difficult to maintain.
And it deteriorates, the way all our muscles do.
And then so the question, for me, is how hard do I want to work on it. If I decide I want to do a concert next Christmas, and I decide that now, that means I have to keep the voice going, which means a tremendous amount of vocal exercises and concentration in that field.
AA - Tell me a little more about that – what does that preparation entail?
JB - So now – if I want to get ready for a single concert, it will mean I’ve had to do a daily workout for the throat. But if I really wanted to – I mean, as it gets closer to the time of a concert, or the tour, then I really have to sit down with a guitar and get serious with it, and that’s the time-consuming part.
You know, it’s a question of reinventing everything. You reinvent the vocal cords each time, after some time has gone by. You reinvent every song so that it fits in this limited range. It’s way more complicated than people would ever think.
AA - I’m curious about the structure of the tour, because you’re kicking things off in Selma and you’re spending a lot of time in the South. Was that a particular focal point for you to make sure to include on your last tour?
JB - Oh, absolutely. You know, when we designed this farewell tour, I realized all of a sudden that we hadn’t put the South in. And I’m sure it’s because, you know, it’s not lucrative, and that’s not where management’s mind would go. And I said, hey, wait a minute, you know, we’re not doing the South.
So, when I made it clear that I want to, then – because it’s important, it was a huge part of my life back in the day, and it continues to be now, really – so that’s when we started trying to find the appropriate places to go. Yeah.
I hope I figure out the appropriate songs that I feel right with, and I also have to see what the public is like. You know, I worked with King, and they were all black folk. But black folk don’t come to my concerts, basically. You know, so it’s a funny situation, feeling as though I’m dedicated to the movement and knowing that it’s a white audience of my fans.
AA - You mention working with Dr. King – is there anything you remember about performing in Alabama during the civil rights movement you’d like to share?
JB - Well, I remember distinctly some of the things – when I sang at Miles College, the arrests were going on of those kids, that same day, in Birmingham – and I remember wanting to be there instead of at the school where I was singing, because when kids stay in school, they’re more conservative than the ones who are out getting arrested.
However, after a wild ride with this driver who told me to get down on the floor in the back of the car – I came to the college… And, you know, people still come up and say they were there when we all sang We Shall Overcome together, and white people were holding hands with black people – which had really never happened before.
So I kind of did what the Lord had planned for me to do, and was happy to have been there.
AA - Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time, and I wish you all the best of luck with this tour and going forward.
JB - Thank you very much.
Joan Baez kicks off her Fare Thee Well tour Tuesday, April 9 at the Walton Theater in Selma, Alabama. Wednesday, April 10 she’ll be at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center in Birmingham. On Saturday, she’ll perform at the Saenger Theater in Mobile.