Finding her voice: Joan Baez brings her famous sounds to Fargo
FARGO - For more than 50 years, Joan Baez has been singing other people’s words and music, and in turn, making them her songs.
Unlike other artists on the road, Baez isn’t touring behind a new album, and doesn’t have immediate plans for a new disc.
“At my age, whatever I do has to be worth it. It has to be good because we all reinvent ourselves periodically in this business anyway. I have to be at least as good as whatever I was before, and sometimes that takes doing. … I’m slowly getting songs together, but there’s no rush, as long as my voice holds out,” she says with a laugh.
But the state of her voice wasn’t a joking matter a few years ago. She couldn’t sing the way she wanted to, couldn’t hit the high notes the strong soprano could previously find with ease.
“There came a time when I wasn’t going to sing anymore. It wasn’t any fun,” she says.
She thought there might be something wrong with her vocal chords, but after visiting an ear, nose and throat doctor, she learned her voice was just acting its age.
“I had to agree that my voice was right for my age, whether I liked it or not, and then work with it from there to get it back to where it was fun again and learn some new tricks,” she says.
Re-learning something she’d been doing all of her adult life was reinvigorating. She’s figured out how to work around the notes that gave her trouble, and now sings with ease and says she’s having some of the best times on the road.
“It took me until I was in my mid-60s to get it together in a way that would be fun,” she says.
That was almost 50 years after she started performing publicly. After honing her style in the late-1950s folk scene on the East Coast, Baez recorded her first album in 1960 and set her career running.
By 1963, she landed on the charts with her version of the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” and then a couple of years later with Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
Last fall, Baez played a concert to coincide with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ fictional depiction of New York’s 1961 folk scene.
“It was really accurate, those dingy old folk clubs,” Baez says. “It was scary to think that I was there and lived through it – and didn’t do all of the drugs that made everybody’s life sort of enhanced. That was kind of a disappointment to my son when he was 18 and found out his mother is a square.”
She may have seemed a square to her son, but she found herself labeled “The Queen of Folk.” She heightened her profile as a vocal advocate for the Civil Rights movement, and was just as strident in protesting the Vietnam War, a cause that got her arrested twice.
It also earned her some detractors, including cartoonist Al Capp, the creator of “Lil’ Abner.” Capp developed a character, Joanie Phoanie in the 1960s, a Communist who lived the high life and sang songs like “Molotov Cocktails for Two.”
“I was proud of what I did politically. I was even flattered that that guy took the time,” she says.
So when the Texas-based Dixie Chicks came under fire in 2003 for telling a British crowd they didn’t support the impending invasion of Iraq and were “ashamed that the President was from Texas,” Baez was supportive.
“They could’ve easily said, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry.’ That would’ve been an easy way to go,” she says. “They weren’t politicized human beings. They were just people who got it, what was right or wrong in their life at that moment. For that, they needed to be recognized.”
While Baez has worked with other outspoken singers recently, like Steve Earle, she doesn’t see protest songs packing as much impact.
“You can say really important things and not necessarily get on the radio or get heard, and I think it has discouraged people from participating. ... I think taking a risk is almost a lost art. The people who take them are not heard about.”
While she’s been socially and politically active, she didn’t back particular candidates until 2008, when she endorsed now-President Barack Obama.
She doesn’t see herself endorsing anyone in the near future.
“I see more interest in trying to convince Barack to lead a movement when he gets out of that stupid office,” she says. “I don’t regret endorsing him, but I lost my mind for a minute there because I forgot what happens to people in office. They can’t get anything done. Seriously, if he got out of office and had a little break, and came back and decided he wanted to be a part of a serious movement for social change, he’s the only person I know of alive who could actually do that.”
While she says she won’t back any politicians, she’s keeping her ears open for a new, interesting musical voice.
“I’m always looking for a song that speaks to me,” she explains. “And when they speak to me, I try to do them justice.”
While Baez isn’t a Midwesterner, she owes a debt to two performers with Fargo roots.
She met Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, a few years after he lived in Fargo for a spell, playing with the likes of Bobby Vee.
Dylan and Baez had a working and romantic relationship at times. She recorded Dylan’s songs through the second half of the decade, including a whole album, “Any Day Now.” They toured together in the 1970s and ’80s.
But when asked if she keeps in touch with Bob Dylan, her answer is simple.
“Nobody’s ever been in touch with Bob Dylan,” she says.
She also lost touch with Peter Schickele, the Fargo-raised composer whose alter ego, PDQ Bach, parodied classical music.
Schickele helped orchestrate three of Baez’s albums in the mid-1960s.
“He’s lovely and consistently funny, not just onstage,” she says. “He’s a good fellow and good musician.”
If You Go WHAT: Joan Baez
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday; no opener
WHERE: The Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
TICKETS: $45 and $55. www.jadepresents.com or (866) 300-8300