Joan Baez on Bob Dylan, Childhood Abuse and Hanging Up Her Guitar  

Since she exploded on the folk scene — first with gigs at the Club 47 outside Boston, then on stage at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival — Joan Baez has been an iconic figure in American music and, thanks to her tireless activism, in American politics as well. She played at Woodstock, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and has lent her voice in support of numerous anti-war, environmentalist and LGBTQ+ causes.

Baez has been in the public eye for more than 60 years, so it comes as a shock, in watching Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, a new documentary from Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle, that we never really knew her at all.

The film, which has its world premiere in the Panorama Documentary section of the Berlin International Film Festival, and is being sold worldwide by Submarine, is a deep dive into Baez’s private life, the parts she has kept hidden from view. With unique access to Baez’s family archives — hundreds of letters, home movies, family photographs, sketches and audio recordings Baez made as a young woman — it explores the personal anxieties and mental illness that Baez suffered through in secret.

Joan Baez and director Karen O’Connor spoke with   ahead of the film’s Berlin premiere about the icon’s early years, the doc and where her guitar is now.

Why did you want to do this documentary and take this particular approach to telling your story. It covers a lot of ground, but I’d be interested to know why you wanted to take part in it and tell your story in this way.

Probably different answers to that. But the best one is that I really want to leave an honest legacy. So that’s what we attempted to do. And it took us in many different directions. You know, I’ve written two memoirs in my life, and this is probably the third. I don’t know if I’ll write another one. But this certainly kind of says it all. So it was time, it was just the right time to do it.

When did you decide that you wanted to do it? Was it at the start of your final tour?

No, it came out of a friendship I had with [co-director] Karen O’Connor. We’d been friends for years and on and off, we would say: “maybe we ought to do this.”

Karen O’Connor: It evolved over time. Joan had been talking about a potential last tour for quite a while and then started to seriously talk about it in, I guess, 2016/2017. And we imagined that [the tour] could be an interesting narrative thread in a documentary. But over time, that just evolved, as the process went on, because of our friendship and how Joan entrusted us with this extraordinary personal and family archive. Once we found that archive, everything shifted in the film. There was no going back.

That is the striking thing about this documentary, how much of your personal life and personal struggles it reveals. What was it about that discovery of your archives that changed things?

Well, it’s very simple. I opened up the storage unit. I’d never even seen it myself. But it turns out my family kept every letter anybody ever wrote. Every little tape I sent them from the road. It was all in there. I had no idea. And I just said [to Karen] go and do it. That’s how it started being so honest.

Karen O’Connor: And as filmmakers, it changed everything because we had a trove of original first material. That’s a goldmine. It opened everything up, it gave us an opportunity to make the past come alive and to really tell it through Joan’s perspective at the time, not just with hindsight. We were able to represent these kinds of history-making moments and to hear what Joan was experiencing, whether it was with the March on Washington or the Montgomery March, or whatever it might be. Suddenly going to London with (Bob) Dylan. It opened all the possibilities to make this film incredibly immersive.

Were you at all surprised by your younger self when you heard her on those tapes or read what she had to say at the time?

I can’t believe that I did all that. And I can’t believe I was so true to myself at such a young age. I managed to say all that because I’ve always looked at my vocal cords as a gift. My desire to immerse myself in other people’s struggles is another gift and that’s what I did with my music. But I look back and say, “Oh my God, that’s how it started.” And at a really young age.

It seems that your politics and your music have always been indivisible for you.

Not really. I’ve always felt that the voice was a gift. Yes, I was aware of the politics but the gift of being able to use the voice there was just amazing. I was lucky in part. That I had the equipment to do it and had the desire to do the things I did. The politics just fused with the music.

Joan Baez in a civil rights march with James Baldwin (left) and James Forman. From 'Joan Baez I am a Noise'

Joan Baez in a civil rights march with James Baldwin (left) and James Forman. From ‘Joan Baez I am a Noise’

© Matt Heron

How much do you think it was timing? The period you lived through, the 1960s and ’70s in particular, was such a tumultuous and powerful moment both for music and for politics. Do you think we’ll see that kind of creative/political explosion again?

I think we have to look for what will be next, because that will never be recaptured. And that was decades of extraordinary politics and meaning and power and risk-taking and marches and you can’t recreate that. I don’t know what the trigger is to make it actually happen. I think that the raw materials are there and then whatever happens happens. But, you’re right. I was sort of dropped out of the sky in the middle of this. Boom. Just starting with my folk songs, and then people writing songs that made my repertoire what it became. So part of it, yeah, was the luck of the draw. It was the right years, the right decades. And I was fortunate enough to be there.

Before getting on the phone with you now, I was thinking that in some respects it feels, if you’ll forgive the expression, a great time for protest singers. There is so much out in the world that needs addressing: from the climate catastrophe to Donald Trump and the rise of far-right politics. Do you think it is a good time for protest singers?

I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s so daunting at the moment. It’s so daunting because there are many evils out there, and it’s hard to either avoid it, or to face it and figure out how to deal with it. I know that at some point. The only way there will be real change will be if people are willing to take a risk, For instance, if somebody comes to my library and says, “give me all your copies of Catcher in the Rye” and burns them. That’s the point we say no. And you accept that you’ll be arrested or whatever. The things that are going to make a difference are people being willing and able to say no and paying the price.

When it comes to artists speaking up, I mean, do you think that protest songs can still have the impact now that they did in the ’60s and ’70s in terms of galvanizing a movement and enacting real change?

That’s an interesting question, because there are beautiful songs being written, and there are meaningful songs being written. Maybe, what we need is an answer. I mean, there’s still no “We Will Overcome” being written, there’s still no “Blowin’ in The Wind.” Well, maybe they are, but where do you put them? On a platform? Will people find them, will they have the same impact? These are questions I don’t know the answers to.

How much do you keep up with the younger singer-songwriters of this generation, particularly the female progressive singer-songwriters?

Well, I’m stuck, because my 19-year-old granddaughter is writing her own songs. She’s really quite good. But her idols are dark, all of their writings’ are about bleeding out on the highway, they’re not particularly political beyond the dorm room. But, again, I feel as though the songs are being written and they’re out there, and maybe we have an assent sometime.

You mentioned your voice, and I think most of your fans associate you with that early, I don’t know, angelic soprano you had when you erupted on the stage. In the film, you talk a lot about dealing with how your voice has changed as you’ve aged. Was there a point when you thought: “I’m no longer the singer I once was. Now is the time I should stop”?

Well, that was an ongoing battle. I mean, I made a couple of false starts stopping. I’ve been coached musically for years and have worked hard to keep that voice up. Some people don’t really have to work that hard. But I did. And then it began. The voice got more and more and more difficult as the years went by. And that was a big part of why I decided it was time to quit. I asked a voice coach how will I know when to quit and he said: “your voice will tell you.” And it really did.

Joan Baez in 'Joan Baez I am a Noise'

Joan Baez in ‘Joan Baez I am a Noise’

© Mead Street Films

Are there any benefits to how you interpret your music through using your older voice?

Oh, absolutely. The good wine thing. I mean, it was admirable how it kept coming and reinventing itself. It may have gotten more difficult for me, but it was like a sound that I liked. When I got it right. I had to make a lot of allowances for sounds I could make and ones I couldn’t. But in the end. I was happy with those concerts. I mean, I recognized my limitations and worked around them. And I feel totally, I guess you’d say, a sense of closure with those years of traveling and singing. I am probably busier now than I have ever been in my life. There are people who will say: “oh yeah, but you’ll go back on stage, everybody does.” I just know that’s not true. It was time.

So you’ve put down your guitar for good?

I put the guitar down and then I hung it up on the wall. That’s the only time I’ve touched it since I quit. And it’s a lovely thing to look at. I did some of those sitting down in the kitchen things during COVID. But that’s it. I haven’t had concerts or anything like that. It’s been a done deal and the only time I regretted it a little bit was if there was a one-off, a thing where it’s just “go and sing a couple of songs with so and so.” But I don’t really want to gear up for it. So, no. There’s a little bit of that wish still there but it’s not worth thinking about.

You mentioned the word closure. And a lot of this film is about therapy. About you going through therapy and the issues that were brought up in therapy. This is the first time, in the movie, that you’ve talked publicly about your trauma, about the childhood abuse you suffered. Why did you wait so long to talk about it?

It’s the first time, and I didn’t want to do it while my family was alive. I cared about them, and all the parts that I loved about them and I missed about them. They obviously didn’t remember the things that had happened, which is the case with many, many people. In a lot of abuse cases, the abuser doesn’t remember doing it. So I never would have put a film out that included that while they were still here. My younger sister understood because she went through the same thing. But I didn’t want my other sister to see that. I was protective of her as well.

How much do you think the experience of that trauma, and then being able to recall it through therapy has informed who you are as an artist? Because I don’t think your audience, your fans, had any idea of your internal struggles.

Oh, I don’t know. You can fool most of the people most of the time. People didn’t know, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know until I was 50. I knew something was off with my mom but I didn’t know what it was. But as I delved, you know, into the depths of my issues, I got healthier and healthier. I began to feel that this is what it must be like to be whole. That’s sort of what the film was about.

One thing that I found quite surprising but also quite impressive, is how forgiving you seem of your parents after what they did to you. Was that a major challenge for you to reach that point of forgiveness?

Yeah, and it’s a choice. You have to want to, and then after a while, it becomes total. There’s just no reprisals left. As it says in the film, I wish we had taken care of my dad. The way we did Mom, with 24/7 loving care. And we just couldn’t. But yeah, I mean you love your folks.

If I go back to the music: I still haven’t asked you about Bob Dylan, which I think is a contractual obligation for any interview with you. Can I ask: what did you think when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature?

I thought oh, how Bob. I mean people differ about whether or not he deserved it for his writing, but whatever, I thought he was a great writer of music. It moved me for half a century and millions of people ever since. But it was so typical that he didn’t want to go and accept it. And everybody gets so insulted and everybody’s surprised. And they shouldn’t be surprised anymore. He’ll go off and do a Chevrolet ad, what the fuck? So don’t be surprised [by Dylan] anymore. Just enjoy it.

Do you still have any contact with him?

Um, no.

You mentioned how the distribution of music has changed, with the new technology platforms. Do you think that’s changed the way artists communicate with their audience and maybe even the way that fans understand music?

I’m going to refer to my granddaughter again. She’s 19 and a songwriter. She’s in school in Miami, where she’s just decided she wants to be a lawyer so she can study everything you need to know for show business and copyrights. So she can protect herself in her career. She’s the first ambitious human being in my family! I never thought about any of that. But now they need to. You go to school and you learn how to produce, she’s got someone at school who produces her, she’s got a band. And she says: “I’m going to release my first single on Halloween.” And I said: “How do you do that?” It’s light years from my time. I was picturing a CD. Well, that’s caveman compared to now. Sure enough, her single was on Spotify on Halloween. She said: “Then I’m gonna release the whole album later in the year.” So it completely confounds me.

Finally, if you had a single song, one of your own or one of your many interpretations, which would you most want to be remembered for?

Well, that’s easy. The only brilliant song I ever wrote: Diamonds and Rust.

This interview was edited for space and comprehension.

Check out a clip from ‘Joan Baez I Am A Noise’ below. In it, Baez talks about her first meeting with Bob Dylan and their performing together.

‘Joan Baez: I Am A Noise’

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