Joan Baez has always been more than a singer. The Grammy-nominated folk legend, who turned 78 earlier this month, is also a social activist, and as she gets ready to retire from music, that's how she prefers to be known. When she first started making songs 60 years ago, though, her pacifist message wasn't all that well-received. Baez distinctively remembers being told to shut up and sing in those early days, which is why she's pleasantly surprised by the ever growing list of artists like Taylor Swift willing to speak out politically, and the profound effect that's had on fans.
"I don’t know where I was on tour, but this guy said, 'Well, the reason I voted was that I saw Taylor say something,'" Baez tells me over the phone a few days before the new year, referencing Swift's Instagram post urging fans to vote in the 2018 midterms. "I said, 'I’m going to write this in my diary because that has a lot of meaning!'"
Yet as excited as this interaction made her, Baez is concerned that for some artists, these political statements are just words and no action. In her opinion, when it comes to activism, you need to follow through.
"To really make social change you’re gonna have to take a risk and it isn’t going to be enough to say something, to make a statement, or to put some words in a song," the musician explains. "You’re gonna have to, at some point, put your body where your mouth is."
Baez has never been afraid to do just that. Her parents took her to her first protest when she was 15, and from that moment on, she longed to get out on the front lines marching for civil rights, climate change, and an end to the Vietnam War. During that period, her music, both her originals and her covers of songs by Pete Seeger, The Band, and Bob Dylan, acted as a sweet soundtrack to America's most turbulent times.
For some, Baez will be forever linked to Dylan, who she introduced to a wider audience by bringing him onstage with her when they were dating in the 60s. But despite their problems over the years, she says she doesn't mind that connection at all. "We were both a force to be reckoned with," she says now. "If people want to ask me about him until now until I drop dead, it’s still an honor that I got to be there and I got to know him and learn those songs."
It's her own music, however, that has made her a legend. Baez's 1975 song "Diamonds and Rust," about her breakup with Dylan – who she never names on the track, referring to him only as "the unwashed phenomenon/the original vagabond" – is widely considered one of her best, and her gentle renditions of protest songs like "We Shall Overcome" and "Oh Freedom," both of which she sang at the 1963 March on Washington, are as powerful as ever.
With her most recent album, last year's Whistle Down The Wind — her final one, she says — Baez is still singing songs of resistance, paying tribute to former President Barack Obama ("The President Sang Amazing Grace") and railing against U.S. foreign policy on closer "I Wish the Wars Were All Over." Her 2017 ode to Donald Trump, "Nasty Man," is also a bop, FYI.
Clearly, she's still got it, since her first new album in a decade earned her a ninth Grammy nomination. If she wins Best Folk Album for Whistle Down The Wind, it will be her first win ever. (Baez received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 2007.) But the musician isn't all that interested in talking about awards. "[It's] certainly not something I’ve given much thought to over the years," she says, chuckling. "Winning would be kind of a pleasant surprise."
It would also be a nice button on a long and illustrious career. One that's ending by choice; Baez would rather focus on her painting, though it doesn't hurt that it's getting harder for her to keep her voice in shape. "Many years ago, I asked [my vocal coach], 'When will I know it’s time to quit?" she recalls. "He said, 'Your voice will tell you.'"
Baez's voice has spoken. "I love my voice on the album, I love what it does in concert," she explains, but to get it there she has to keep up with her vocal exercises, "which are boring." Besides, she'd rather listen to the voices of the young female artists of today, which are "really stunning," she says, "Ariana Grande? You can’t compare to those voices."
Baez turns to her 15-year-old granddaughter Jasmine for music recommendations, bonding with the teen over Grande, Adele, and Swift, who is a Baez fan. When she took Jasmine to see Swift's 1989 tour four years ago, she ultimately ended up on stage with the pop star and Julia Roberts, and Swift told her how much her music meant to her. "I don’t think she was lying," Baez says of Swift, who, according to her is "one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met." "But I was surprised — as was my granddaughter."
For Baez, music has always been a fulfilling way to encourage people to take a stance on something they believe in. "To be able to do what I did and go where I went because of the voice," she says. "That was the real gift." Her talent also helped her live a fascinating life, and it's one she plans on bringing to the big screen in an upcoming documentary that she'd like to take to Sundance.
"This is not a puff film," Baez says about the doc, which will cover "early childhood stuff that I’ve never talked about on through. So it’s kind of scary, you know? Sometimes I end up crying right in front of the camera... [but] you just go on and get it out."
Perhaps, it should surprise no one that Baez is taking her own advice and putting her body where her mouth is.