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Saturday 30 August 2014

Music: Joan Baez is the history woman

Barry Egan

Published 24/02/2014 | 02:30

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INFLUENCE: Baez’s impact goes beyond music

'MEN are governed by lines of intellect," James Joyce once said, "Women by curves of emotion." Joan Baez is a mixture of both and a little more besides. Possibly even a lot more besides...

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This incredible woman, born in Staten Island, New York on January 9, 1941, to a Scottish mother and a Mexican father, is an important part of the popular culture of the 20th Century. Not just an iconic folk singer who took a little-known fella by the name of Bob Dylan under her wing – and her bed sheets – in Greenwich Village in the early '60s.

When Martin Luther King Jr gave his epochal I Have A Dream speech in 1963 in Washington, Baez sang We Shall Overcome on that unforgettable day in American and world history. In fact, she actually started the day for King by performing Oh Freedom – its words resonating with real and true meaning: "Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave ... oh freedom over me." Last year at a summit in Prague for world peace to mark the 50th anniversary of King's speech, Baez joined Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama to speak about the world in perpetual crisis.

"There's a long way to go for everybody everywhere, because the world, in general, is going to hell, you know?" said Baez (who plays three much-anticipated nights at Vicar Street in Dublin in September) in an interview last year. "It's hard to remember, or hard to think, that in the beginning of that, black people couldn't go into a white bathroom and couldn't go in through the front door of a restaurant or a hotel all over the South – and more than just the South. So the initial enormous change gets a little forgotten.

"It's hard to find something that doesn't have a long way to go. My little motto is 'Little victories and big defeats'. If you accept the big defeats, then everything you do as a small victory becomes real important," she continued. "Or you see it as important – as it is – instead of trying to compare it to the big picture, which is too big and too complicated, and in many places, too awful to really want to deal with. So many young people say they are moved by something – Romanian orphans, or whatever. There are a lot of young people who say it doesn't feel like the 1960s because we are not connected that way. But there are kids doing things everywhere in the world."

Baez, who was also a part of the peace movement in the Sixties and Seventies in America, standing up and singing for an end to the war in Vietnam, has probably influenced everyone from Emmylou Harris to Joni Mitchell to Courtney Love, PJ Harvey and Sinead O'Connor.

Lest we forget, this is a woman who in May 1989, performed at a music festival in communist Czechoslovakia and befriended the future Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel. At the famous show, Baez's microphone was physically, and without notice, shut off by Soviet agents because she acknowledged a dissident human-rights group and Havel himself in the audience. "I started the song, Swing Low, and then the TV cut the sound," she recalls. "And then I sang Swing Low without the sound, which is where he and I bonded. And that was where our friendship seriously started."

Undeterred, Baez sang the rest of the show a cappella to the crowd, the dissidents and Havel – who would later cite Baez as a motivation in Czechoslovakia's so called Velvet Revolution.

So Joan Baez, I think you'll agree, has had a little more impact on the world perhaps than one of Girls Aloud or B*witched. Her music is powerful too. Baez's versions of Phil Ochs' There But For Fortune and The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down are spine-tingling in terms of the emotions her delivery stirs. Other songs by Baez likely to raise an emotion in any discerning listener will surely include Diamonds & Rust, Farewell, Angelina, Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word, Sweet Sir Galahad and A Song For David.

  • Joan Baez plays Vicar Street in Dublin on September 24, 25 and 27

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