Linda Fritz - September 2008

Remembering Martin
Joan Baez Creates Legendary Magic

Linda Fritz

   Graying and statuesque, dressed in black pants and white tunic with a red scarf draped about her neck, Joan Baez quietly walked out on stage. From my seat in the packed balcony, she looked polished, but somewhat stiff and reserved, as if she were holding back. It turned out she was, indeed, husbanding her strength. Her first words were throaty and subdued and there was a moment of collective dismay, as others in the audience wondered, as I did, if the years had taken their toll on the sweet, silver-toned voice that still resonated with such clarity through our memories. However, despite a shaky start, Baez’s voice soon lofted into every crevice of the hushed theater. That fair April evening, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, became a night to remember. In a gently powerful performance, Joan Baez brought down the house.
    The house in this case was the Avalon Theatre, the refurbished Art Deco movie house in the heart of Easton, MD. One would never mistake its comfortable elegance for a bare-bones coffee house of the ’60s. However, the Avalon manages to create that sense of friendly intimacy, reminding me of the long gone Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA. There for over fifteen years, beginning in the ’60s, its spare storefront operation introduced a generation of young people, including me, to a rich array of acoustic music that was intoxicating and habit forming. Reminders of those days now hang on the walls of the Avalon. Amongst the autographed black-and-white photos of the artists who have played at the Avalon are familiar faces from the Main Point, including Tom Rush, Eric Anderson, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens and Janis Ian. Until recently, no one would have expected to see a photo of Joan Baez.
    For many of us, hers was the sweet siren song that first drew us to folk music and, in my case, even prompted me to take up the guitar and learn to play those curiously beautiful ballads with their timeless themes: love, betrayal, sorrow, conflict, redemption. By the mid-’60s Baez was already a folk music superstar, and seeing her in anything approaching an intimate setting was unimaginable. It wasn’t until college that I saw her in concert—at a cavernous sports arena.
    Some serendipitous alignment of scheduling, geography and foresight had brought Baez to town, and the show had been sold out before it opened—Avalon Foundation members and patrons on the mailing list had, understandably, scooped up the 300 tickets. The morning of the concert, however, I was able to buy a ticket that a patron couldn’t use. “This is your lucky day,” the young woman remarked, smiling as she handed me the sole ticket. It was indeed.
    As I gazed around at the other lucky ticket holders that evening, I saw members of the graying but not yet geriatric Woodstock generation, hair now less a reflection of the Age of Aquarius than just plain age. Baez’s siren song had not, it seemed, reached the next generation.
    These days, Joan Baez, herself, is no longer the dark-haired waif of memory, but a strikingly handsome woman, with short hair gleaming like pewter and a ready smile. She began the concert with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” getting things off to an acceptable start, but relying heavily on the talents of her accomplished and versatile three-piece band. It was a game effort, but Baez soon acknowledged what the attentive and knowledgeable audience had already sensed – she was fighting off a flu or cold. She hoped to avoid the “train wreck” she’d had at a previous concert, she told us, in between sips from a large cup. She felt cold, and asked the audience if she could borrow a scarf. She was handed up a flowing pink scarf and a leather jacket, which she snuggled into for a few songs. “You’ll get it back!” she said, smiling as she draped the jacket over a music stand later, her chill gone.
    The concert never veered close to a train wreck. The audience of old fans was respectful, almost reverential. These people shared her history, knew her music, and, from the bursts of applause and occasional shouts of encouragement or requests, had a palpable energy that Joan responded to throughout the concert.
    The mild spring weather had prompted Baez to stroll around town earlier that day. She admired the “lovely little town with its lovely little theater” and the friendly people she encountered. Even being rousted out of a deep sleep by a minor fire in her hotel the night before was transformed into something positive: “All those years of fire drills and now finally a fire!”
    Partway through the concert, her band left the stage and the coffee house intimacy intensified—it was just Joan Baez and the audience. Despite the higher range, she tackled “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word,” warning beforehand that if it wasn’t working she’d stop. “Go for it!” someone encouraged. She sang it somewhat huskily, but beautifully. She even slipped into a wonderfully comic imitation of Bob Dylan for a few verses. Her voice and energy seemed to grow as the evening progressed–we were hers and she was ours.
    Then she spoke of “Martin.” She talked about what it was like to know him and to march with him in places such as Granada, Mississippi, where the police lined the streets and little black and white kids threw rocks at each other. What a fun and funny man Dr. King was, she said, although he was always afraid to give the public a glimpse of that side of him, thinking he wouldn’t be taken seriously. She talked about him being late for church one Sunday – he was always late – apparently it was rude to be on time. But, more than two hours late, he was still asleep at a nearby home and no one wanted to be the one to wake him. Baez said they told her, “You do it.” So she went into the house and “saw his beautiful black head on the white pillow, sleeping so peacefully.” She started to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and he awoke and told her he thought he’d heard the voice of an angel.
    Joan Baez may have the voice of an angel, but she also has the courage of a warrior. She feared the tear gas, she said, but that didn’t stop her from walking into places back then that were crackling with tension and hatred and fear. She often went into those situations first because, as she said, when she showed up, the cameras would roll, and the rock throwing and other violence would cease – at least for a while.
    We sat shoulder to shoulder in that cozy theater, the crowd hushed so as not to miss a single word, and we were absolutely captivated by this icon of the ’60s, this passionate woman who has lived her beliefs for so long.
    Those stories set the tone for the rest of the performance. Baez acceded to several requests for “Jerusalem,” which she sang, her voice stirring in its hopefulness. Even the light-hearted Sam Cook standard, “Don’t Know Much About History,” took on a new significance when the crowd, which was singing along with Baez by this time, got to the chorus, “…but I do know that I love you, and I do know if you love me too, what a wonderful world it would be.”
    It had been nearly 40 years since my first Baez concert in college. She had been on tour, accompanied by son Gabriel, then a toddler, who briefly appeared on stage with her. At the time she was married to David Harris who was in jail for avoiding the draft. I was struck back then by her conviction and the uncommon maturity she articulated: When you protest to the point that you break the laws of society, you have to be prepared “to pay the dues.” Her clear-eyed approach stood in refreshing contrast to the excess and rationalization that characterized much of that period. Baez offered both the soaring voice of idealism and the sobering voice of pragmatism.
    At the Avalon that night, Baez told us that, as a pacifist and a non-violent activist, she has always tried to steer clear of endorsing candidates. But, she confided, her choice this time is Barack Obama. Any further message was left to the music.
    She said her next CD, meant to be an acoustic bookend to her first album, is due out in September. She sang two Steve Earle songs from it: “God is God” and “Christmastime in Washington.” The first provoked such an enthusiastic response afterward that Baez noted, “Well, that’s a keeper!”
    Her restrained passion and humor flowed through the relaxed evening in equal measure. “I don’t care about the money,” Baez deadpanned at one point, “but I do love the adulation.” And the crowd gave it to her.
    Her final songs were familiar and fitting: John Lennon’s “Imagine,” her autobiographical “Diamonds and Rust” and, bringing the evening to a splendid close, “Amazing Grace.” By the end, regardless of individual political leanings, the audience was on its feet, applauding this passionate woman, this soul of a generation … who was right here in this “lovely little theater in this lovely little town.”
    As I made my way down the stairs amongst the other stricken faces, my tissue a damp mass in my hand, I was reminded of the day when, at age 14 or 15, I heard Martin Luther King speak at a black church in Philadelphia. My uncle, younger brother and I may have been the only white people there. In the mid-’60s I got an inkling of what it felt like to be a minority. Once again, I pictured that scene – the weeping, the clutched white handkerchiefs, the rising and falling cadences of King’s voice, the powerful wave-like rhythms as the congregation repeatedly responded to his words with “Yes, Lord….” It was a memory that had lain tucked away for a long time.
    I emerged from the concert into the soft night, the memories and emotions tumbling freely, marveling at Baez’s ability to touch the hearts of her listeners. Once again, I felt I had been in the presence of greatness. Despite or because of what she has seen, Joan Baez seems refreshingly passionate and optimistic about what she feels is still possible. On this historic evening, some 40 years later, the Avalon had never felt more magical, or so alive – with music and history … and hope.