In 1963, when Joan Baez performed “We Shall Overcome” during MLK’s March on Washington, she solidified herself as not only an icon of American folk music, but also staked her place as one of the most vocal and involved advocates of civil rights in recent music history. But that was 52 years ago. Quite a lot can change in that sort of time. Bob Dylan, her ex-lover and frequent collaborator, has seen his distinctive nasal vocal style shrivel into a husky smoker’s drawl.
So when Baez stepped onto stage, guitar in hand, with her neatly trimmed white hair, I began to worry. Had her revolutionary spirit been tamed? Had she followed lockstep with her generation, eschewing the radicalism of youth for the quiet conservatism of old age?
As soon as she began with “Hickory Wind,” I immediately knew how misplaced my fears had been. With a commanding voice and considerable aptitude on her guitar, Baez dazzled the mostly-grayed audience at the Charleston Music Hall. Perhaps many of them had seen her back in her heyday. After finishing her first song, especially dedicated to her South Carolina audience, she opened up with some thoughts on politics. “Someone said ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,’” she mused, referring to comments made by Madeleine Albright endorsing Hillary Clinton. “Well, I hope they have air conditioning,” she continued, throwing her support behind left candidate Bernie Sanders to enthusiastic cheers from the audience.
From that point on, the concert took on a palpably political tone. She covered such classics as Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” a protest song written in solidarity with immigrant workers and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which she claims to have learned in prison after being arrested for participation in an anti-war protest. Even less political songs, like her cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and her own “Diamonds & Rust,”—a heartbreaking performance chronicling her breakup with Dylan—were punctuated with calls for nonviolent revolution and a more just society.
Baez, unlike so many of her generation, still holds to the kind of values and daring musical orientation that she herself was so crucial in developing. But after coming back onstage for two encore songs—John Lennon’s liberal anthem “Imagine” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” she confided that she was tired and just wanted to sleep.
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