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July 7, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 38
Joan Baez, Untrained Voice of Confidence
By James Kempton
She never stumbles
She’s got no place to fall
–Dylan, “She Belongs to Me”
It seems uncharitable to permit Bob Dylan the opening statement on Joan Baez. Yet her aura of invulnerability so impresses, perhaps because it derives more from her self-simplication than her talent.
Miss Baez is 25. In the six years she has been the tear in the eye of the hippie hurricane she has practiced her sincerity to the point of naivete and contracted her social consciousness to an unassailable pacifism. She is currently applying her voice to the great medium of adolescent confusion: rock ‘n’ roll.
One afternoon last week, wearing a company smile and holding a breakfast orange, she welcomed an interviewer to her midtown hotel room. She was in New York for her yearly recording sessions.
Between careful bites, she recalled her trip to Europe this spring, principally in support of the Easter peace marches in Germany: “On our way to the first one we got lost. Before, I had been thinking a lot about German efficiency and it was such a relief.”
In nine other countries she sang and delivered her brief message of concern over “all the violence in the world around us and especially the violence within ourselves.”
A Parisian audience was particularly puzzled: “Guys kept getting up and asking how I felt about such and such an incident in such and such a year. I tried to tell them that’s not what matters.” It is hard not to think of the blue grass hecklers at her first singing appearances in Cambridge. Today, Joan Baez studies Gandhi and Thoreau just as she turned then to Childe’s “Ballads.” They seem the best spokesmen for her emotions.
Her father, a reformed physicist who now serves as a consultant to UNESCO in Paris, has joked about her “Joan of Arc complex.” But already the itinerary of her first foreign campaign was dissolving into anecdote. Her peculiar presents, which elicits historical parallels from almost all who try to describe it, seems based on the refusal to submit to any public sense of her destiny.
“I’m really so dumb. I haven’t read anything. That’s why I started the School (for the Study of Non-Violence).” Political and ideological details that “require some knowledge” she leaves to her tutor Ira Sandperl, a longtime friend of her parents. “I’m just a sympathizer with people.” She smiled as this was written down, and stacked orange peels on the arm of her chair. “I never say what you really want to hear.” It was neither an apology nor a boast, perhaps only a confession that she prefers things this way.
Her personal secretary Susan Robinson interrupted bearing an envelope sent by the Hoboken police with the contents of Miss Baez’s pocketbook lost the night before near Radio City. While it was opened, Miss Robinson, a 20-year-old bustler who seems to illustrate what happens to California blondes who do not take up surfing, offered an aside: “Joanie and I have been friends ever since I was five. I’ve been doing this for eight months. As you can see it’s a lot of fun.”
The wallet, credit cards, and traveler’s checks had been returned, but not her make-up and an address book with “a whole page of movie stars.” Susan Robinson kissed her on the top of her head and knelt by her chair. “It’s all right, Joanie. Gandhi wouldn’t have cared.” Miss Baez refused to respond to the prep school jolly-up. “All those names…Marion Brando, John Lennon. We can’t even call up Nancy Sinatra any more.
Miss Robinson left promising to buy her “some of that great new blue eye shadow” and the reformer sighed. “Listen, mister, people are lousy. If we don’t change soon we’re going to blow ourselves up.”
The holocaust, a conversational refrain for Miss Baez, is one of two ties that bind all puberties of the last 15 years. The other is rock ‘n’ roll. There is no point debating its dignity as an art form: like everyone under 30 she always listens to rock ‘n’ roll in the car: “Sometimes when my meditations are really working I’ll go for two weeks without turning on the radio. It’s hard to sing rock ‘n’ roll now because it comes from the guts. It’s such perfect wallowing music.”
Joan Baez sang it when she was in high school and her objection since has been to its lyrics. Last week, behind a 17-piece band and a studio chorus she handled a tune by Bert Bacharach that may come as close as a popular song can to her personal ethic:
“What the world needs is love sweet love.
That’s the only thing there’s just too little of.”
The rest of her material captured the depression that approximates unrequited love and it occasionally led her into Dionne Warwick’s tracks. Yet the results were much better than they need to be to sell, if Vanguard Records chooses to release any as singles.
…For most, college is the silent assent to the social contract. In 1959 Joan Baez left the Boston University Fine Arts School of Drama after a month. The usual recourse is to the Scene, also an assent because it can reorganize your life just as effectively.
Of the Bohemianism for which she was long a symbol, Miss Baez now insists: “All I can do is project. I’ve never taken drugs or drank in the Harvard Square beat scene. I used to cry a lot sitting up all night, but I didn’t go the whole way like a lot of kids in the Village who ended up confusing days and nights.”
She made her big-time debut at the Newport Festival of 1959. Three years later, the photogenic figurehead of the folk revival went back to California and a new career as a voice of conscience.
In 1963 she joined the March on Washington. In December, 1964, she led Free Speechers up the steps of Sproul Hall, advising them to “do this thing with love and you will win.”
But Joan Baez has never joined the established New Left. She withdrew from the Vietnam Day Parade in New York this spring because she could not be assured that all marchers supported non-violence. In her, pacifism is the individualist’s distrust for the organizational realities of mass reform.
…There is an earnestness and inconsistency about this graceful dilettante who drives an XKE and quotes Ghandi, who worries equally over the loss of Brando’s number and the morality of paying her phone bill.
The sum of her political actions does not quite equal a dedication to the causes of her generation. Rather, they seem the gestures of one whose deepest moral attachment is to the right of privacy that inhibits participation. Today Miss Baez inhabits a private world and her beautiful voice has remained no more than the price of admission.
The School for the Study of Non-Violence is much more than a drop-out fantasy, just as her presence in Europe affirmed something more noble than her own political independence. What she accomplished in the studio made the whole issue of arrested development silly. But any attempt to render her as simply as she does herself is doomed.
Fortunately she is working on a book. E.L. Doctorow, her editor at Dial, describes it as “not really an autobiography. That’s too pretentious. She’s only 25. It’s an impressionistic account of parts of her life. Frankly, as a writer she’s a natural.”
This must some as no surprise.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]