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Joan Baez remains relevant, engaged, iconic
Joan Baez made a determination many years ago that she "did not want to be the world's oldest living folk singer."
She's not -- even at the age of 75 -- but Baez may be its most revered.
Since she began recording in 1960, the New York-born, California-raised singer and songwriter has never wavered in either her commitment to the music or to the activism -- political, social and environmental -- that goes hand in hand with it. She was feted with an all-star concert earlier this week in New York to celebrate her birthday, and Baez says part of the key to her career's longevity has been to make serious music but not necessarily be a serious music maker.
"The way I've worked all my life musically is, if it works, fine, and if it doesn't, so what?" Baez explains. "If you're patient, everything changes. Old songs suddenly become relevant and I feel like singing them again. Nostalgia, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a hook. But it's better to be relevant. There's work to be done, still."
Baez has certainly done her share of heavy lifting via appearances in support of civil rights, human rights and the Occupy movement, opposition to the death penalty and to wars in Vietnam and Iraq, in fighting poverty and promoting environmental awareness. Amnesty International established a Joan Baez Award in her honor, presented each year for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights. Performances at the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, the inaugural Woodstock festival in 1969 and Live Aid in 1985 are only a few of the appearances she's made to promote those causes.
And Baez is confident those messages still resonate today.
"For young people who have never heard a lot of the early things...It does feel like an opening, just an opening in the minds," Baez says. "I think there are thousands, millions of minds that have simply been waiting fro something give them the OK to speak out, and they're finding that encouragement in some of the (music), especially what we did before.
"If I do them right, they become new and speak to people now."
Because of that, Baez takes great care to make sure she does the material "right." Lauded for her voice, angelic but untrained, she began studying with a vocal coach during the late 70s and still maintains a regimen to keep her pipes in shape.
"It's tremendously hard work," she acknowledges. "For the first 20, 25 years of my career singing was a breeze; I used to pen up my peeper and out it came. But lo and behold, the child genius faces reality; I have a muscle in my throat, a vocal cord, and like everyone else in the world it won't work unless I start exercising it.
"I had to learn from a vocal coach how to retrain my voice to do stuff. I had to be serious about it, every day. If I'm just doing maintenance between tours, 10 minutes will do it. But when I go out it's half an hour to 40 minutes of training, and then I like to sit for an hour or so and sing the songs I'm planning. That's just part of all this now, too."
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at the 39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
Hill Auditorium on the U-M Campus.
Tickets are sold out. Some tickets are still available for the first night of the festival on Friday, Jan. 29.
Call 734-761-1800 or visit theark.org.
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