Joan Baez, the music legend, hit the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk scene when she made the round of cafes there in 1960. Cambridge, the Berkeley of the East Coast because Harvard University is located there, is a culturally rich enclave of intellectual Left progressivism.
Born Joan Chandos Baez to a Mexican father and Scottish mother, Baez lived in Palo Alto, California with her family until 1958 when her father, Albert, joined the faculty at MIT. The religiously diverse Baez family—her grandfather was a Catholic turned Methodist, while her mother was the daughter of an Anglican priest—converted to Quakerism while Joan was still a child.
Quakerism, with its Left progressive secular theology, barely qualifies as a religion but it helped mold Joan into what she would later become: an activist who spoke out on behalf of non-violence, civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. Baez’s first public act of civil disobedience was her refusal to leave her Palo Alto high school for an air raid drill.
The Palo Alto Times reported on February 7, 1958, that:
“Miss Baez stayed at the school until the normal end of classes at 3 p.m. She told school officials that she is a ‘conscientious objector’ and does not believe in the drill.
Later in the afternoon she told the Times: ‘I don’t see any sense in having an air raid drill. I don’t think it’s a method of defense. Our only defense is peace.’
She said she did not see any sense in a two-hour warning system when a missle can get to this country in half an hour.”
Fast forward to Club 47 in Cambridge and Baez’s first concert where she sang English murder ballads and sad Appalachian love dirges. Her mellifluous soprano voice caught on; she introduced audiences to Bob Dylan, and the rest is history.
When Baez was invited to sign her first recording contract with Columbia, she went into the posh corporate Columbia offices and immediately felt sick. What to do? She headed over to an independent label, Vanguard, where she signed a deal in 1960. Vanguard, she said, made her “feel safe.”
After she became famous, she refused a ride in a Cadillac limousine, calling it too capitalist, but when a truck was sent to pick her up, she reconsidered. “Maybe a limousine isn’t too bad.”
When I interviewed Baez by phone in the 1990s for a Left-oriented magazine, I was mostly charmed by her stories, many of them personal, but there was little of the political in our conversation. By then the activism of the 1960s and ’70s had passed, and Baez, the troubadour-activist, had been mostly silent when it came to “issues.” She had also cut her epic long hair and now had a stylized helmet-feminist cut reminiscent of a zillion and a half suburban women.
Things just weren’t the same with her. In many ways, it seemed as if “the guts” of Joan Baez had been torn out, meaning that any conversation with her would only be about the issues of the past.
The Christian Science Monitor summed up that time in a September 1995 article, stating that,
…By 1990, both ’70s-style liberalism and ’80s-style conservatism had failed. Unfortunately, no new political force within or outside of the two parties, representing ideas of the 1990s, has appeared. The result is an American electorate that tries to change the channel every few years – and finds nothing but reruns….
Then came Cancel Culture and the extreme leftward turn of the Democrat party. The Monitor’s view that in the 1990s “no new political force within or outside of the two parties…has appeared” was rendered null and void. The Times they were a changing….The Democrat party had become the counterculture, but even more so.
Suddenly, Joan Baez re-emerged, the soprano phoenix having waited out the intervening years in relative obscurity. As an activist, how could she “top” what came before when she sang barefoot in Harvard Square?
Certainly, there had been nothing as newsworthy as her 1963 singing of “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
There were also no New York Times photo ops as grand as the image of her holding hands with King as the two escorted schoolchildren into a desegregated school in Grenda, Mississippi.
In April 1993, Baez did manage to travel to Sarajevo to give a concert as a way to show her support for the people there. The Baez website will tell you that she spent “11 days running in and out of shelters” as bombs fell, although Susan Sontag, who was in Sarajevo at the same time staging a Samuel Beckett play, writes that Baez left the city in a terrified panic as soon as the first bomb exploded.
What’s a little virtue signaling among leftists, after all?
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 reactivated Joan Baez’s activism.
Baez, despite her reputation for humane disagreement and empathic understanding of “one’s enemies,” fell into all the leftist traps: Trump was a white supremacist, anti LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. Racism was also a national pandemic and it was destroying the United States from within, etc.
Not only that, but democracy was being threatened with permanent extinction.
Yet there was nothing from Baez when it came to Cancel Culture. Nothing about conservative thinkers and writers being banned from American campuses; nothing about erasing the distinction between legal and illegal immigration (in fact, Baez once arrived at a concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall wearing a t-shirt that read, “Make America Mexican Again”); nothing about the Marxist street revolutionaries who burned down cities in the U.S. in 2020 to the tune of $2 billion in damages; nothing about the toppling of statues of historic figures because they were perceived as having despicable opinions; nothing about the illogic of biological men competing in women’s sports.
If Baez had any feelings about these things, she kept them to herself. Image is everything, after all.
Would she really welcome being perceived as another David Horowitz, a traitor to progressivism?
Baez being Baez, it was crucial that she keep up the Baez mythology and act out her former activist role of righteous protest and “doing good.”
She began a secondary career as a portrait painter, capturing the likenesses of Patti Smith, Stacey Walker, Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders and Ukraine President Zelensky. These unframed prints, signed and numbered, go for upwards of $350.00 (shipping not included). She calls the series, ‘Mischief Makers,’ or portraits of people “changing the world.”
Name your leftwing personality, even the most remote, and Baez has a portrait for you. Like football? Well, there’s Colin Kaepernick. Have an obsession with the Supreme Court? There’s [Saint] Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like a good political cackle? There’s a lovely portrait of Kamala Harris for your spare bedroom wall.
Let’s not forget Anthony Fauci, whose portrait includes the word ‘Trust’ printed alongside it in eerie Flavor Aid Orwellian doublespeak.
On Baez’s website, referring to the portrait of Zelensky, one can read: “Joan Baez never imagined painting a portrait of a war hero.”
Well, frankly, neither can most of us. It appears that Baez-ian nonviolent principles and anti-war rhetoric don’t apply to Ukraine.
No longer a solitary visionary with minority “barefoot” views, Joan Baez is now a status quo member of the Biden-Democrat establishment, fully certified and enshrined like a star in the heavens, with more international accolades than I could possibly list here — nearly all of them having been awarded since her second albeit ‘shadow’ phase of political activism.