Joan Baez isn't giving up singing for good, but the Fare Thee Well tour, which brings the folk and protest music legend to Verizon Hall for a sold-out show Wednesday, will be her last.
For Baez, retirement from the road is a practical matter. The 77-year-old singer is known for her angelic, crystalline voice and her decades-spanning commitment to political activism.
She sang "We Shall Overcome" at the March on Washington in 1963. Her version of Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday" was included in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls. She sang at Woodstock and Live Aid, and was honored with the Ambassador of Conscience award by Amnesty International in 2015.
But a long career has taken its toll on her voice. That added grit lends gravitas to her fine new album, her first in 10 years, Whistle Down the Wind, produced by Joe Henry, who has produced albums by Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, among many others.
It includes well-chosen songs by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Anohni, as well as Zoe Mulford's, "The President Sang Amazing Grace," about Barack Obama's vocalizing at the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of the nine people killed in the 2015 Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting in Charleston, S.C..
Baez isn't sure if she'll record again but says the maintenance needed to keep her voice in shape made her decide to stop touring after Fare Thee Well winds down in May. She plans to use the time to paint, among other things: Her "Mischief Makers" show of portraits of people who have instigated social change through nonviolence ran at the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, Calif., in 2017, and she's entered a recent painting of gun-control activist Emma Gonzalez in a National Portrait Gallery competition.
Baez spoke this month from a stop in Toronto, just as her final tour was starting.
You announced in January that this was your last tour. Now that you're actually on it, does it feel any different than you expected?
Well first of all, we keep stretching it. That has something to do with how I feel. I will be very sad to give up the bus, and my bus family, and the concerts.
But you know, it was issues with my voice that first started off this idea. Back when I was in my 30s I asked my vocal coach, "How will I know when it's time to quit?" He said, "Oh, your voice will tell you." And he was right. I like the sound of it now, and I love the album. But just to keep it there, it's a tremendous amount of work. Because it's a muscle. Gravity is taking over everything, but it started with the vocal cords.
The first words of your autobiography A Voice to Sing With are: "I was born gifted." When did you start having to care for your voice?
I was Miss Natural Talent. It never dawned on me that anything would change. Then sometime in my 30s I began having difficulty with notes I had never had a problem with. My friend said, "Why don't you go get some coaching?" I thought: "Well, that's a stupid idea. I wouldn't need a thing like that." And then when I finally did, I never stopped. I think if I had started earlier I'd have had fewer problems. My friend Judy Collins can still sustain a high note, but she started training when she was young.
But there's value in the experience in a voice that's aged, where you can hear a life that's been lived, don't you think?
Oh yeah, and I like that, I like that sound. And I'm not going to have any choice now anyway. … But when I stop officially touring and don't have to keep it up every day, it's going to deteriorate faster than it will if I'm singing constantly. I can say, "Oh, I can go and give a concert in Timbuktu." But it's going to be a little harder each time.
Calling this tour Fare Thee Well circles back to a song on your first album from 1960.
People get very dramatic about it being the last tour. If I was really stopping dead, that would be a different feeling.
But we were playing Paris and had planned for a family dinner [with her road crew] and it was the idea of the bus family not being around anymore, and I just started crying. And I'm happy I did, because I didn't know where I was stuffing those feelings. It's a big change. I've been doing this for 60 years.
There's a song on your new album written by Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, called "Last Leaf." "I'm the last leaf on the tree / The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me." One line goes, "I've been here since Eisenhower." You've lived through a lot of political changes.
When you look back on the early '60s, does that feel like it happened to a different person, a long time ago? What's your perspective on that?
That's an interesting question. The other day there was a record player in the room and they put a couple of albums on, and one of them I hadn't listened to for decades. …
It was 5 [her fifth album, from 1964] and that has [composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' aria] "Bachianas Brasileiras," and that goes up to a high E. And I was fascinated by that, listening to myself. It was like a disembodied experience. I felt like I was somebody else.
It was very hard to attach myself to that. And at the same time I've been so consistent, especially politically, going back to those days, so there's a strain of that that comes right through. So here I am again, doing what I've always done.
What was it like being at the center of those times when pop music was testing out its power?
It happened because of the rush of talent. Mainly, I think spearheading it would be Dylan. It went from being this esoteric folk boom, to crossing over into our culture. It became AM radio. It became something everybody listened to.
Part of it was that that talent did seem so extraordinary. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and then all the other people you could name who were writing this extraordinary stuff. And we don't have that right now. I think there are a ton of songs being written and some of them are very good. But what we don't have is an anthem. We need a current day "We Shall Overcome" in order to quit singing "We Shall Overcome."
Every time I watch footage from Don't Look Back [D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about Dylan's tour of England in 1965], I always think, "Oh God, he's being so mean to Joan Baez!" Sitting with his back turned typing, ignoring you. How do you remember those times?
There are two things to say about it. One of them was that it was awful and I was a fool for staying. I was outside of that situation. I was outside the drug culture, outside the room, and outside their heads, and I really didn't belong there at that point.
And then I held grudges forever. Then they dwindled and became less and less, and then I started painting portraits of him — they were commissions — and I put his music on, and every last ounce of any resentment or anything like that just vanished.
Were you angry when you wrote "Diamonds and Rust," about him in 1974?
I'm not sure of the timing. I just know that for a while it was feeling hurt, and pissed off, and then feeling left out. But then the big shift happened in the last year.
Really? That recently?
Yeah. Now I have only the feeling that I was there, that I'm grateful that I knew him and that he wrote those songs. And that I could sing them. It's all quite extraordinary. I mean if you're going to be linked to somebody for the rest of your life, that's not a bad choice.
When you made Whistle Down the Wind were you tempted to make every song an angry protest song?
No, not at all.
Because, first of all, I can take advantage of the one thing Trump has done for me, which is to make all of these songs more meaningful. I mean, "The President Sang Amazing Grace" is not an angry song. It's a beautiful song that drives its point home.
That song is so meaningful and so is "Another World." Don't call that a protest song. It's just a beautiful song.
How did that one come to you?
My assistant found it. "The President" song just dropped out of the sky. I heard it on the radio.
How did you end up working with Joe Henry?
My very clever manager said, "I want you to try this guy." He came to lunch and I could not get a read on him. I couldn't find a connection. But then I said, "OK, let's try." And I never really did find a connection. I mean, not a personal wavelength connection. And it sure as hell did not matter. Musically, we were just spot on. And I like him. He's a really nice guy.
What's the key to making a collection of songs a personal statement, when you didn't write them yourself?
I've never really understood what it is that drew me to a song, aside from the obvious things. Is it in my range? Is it beautiful? But the package of the song is what's important. For this album, we had 13 songs recorded. Three of them were not perfect. I think the rest of them were. The others didn't fit into what we were doing.
What's the through line on the new album?
The through line is really coming from the first album. Like "Silver Blade" and "Silver Dagger." It's really fascinating. Because "Silver Blade" [on her debut album] was about a young woman whose mother said, "Don't get married," and she said OK.
And "Silver Dagger" [written by Josh Ritter] is very different. She basically ends up being part of the #MeToo movement, only she's killing the guy. So I joke about it, I tell the audience, "It doesn't mean you have to kill him, but you sure don't have to let him treat you like that anymore."
You've been in the entertainment business a long time. Is it satisfying to see abusers get their comeuppance?
It's not so much the comeuppance. It's that the women are dealing with it, and now facing a whole new life. They've spent so much time living in the dark, and this is dealing with the darkness.
It takes tremendous courage to do that. There's certainly been a shift in our society. And because this country is watched more than any other country, it creates waves in the world.
What are you most proud of in your career?
You know, people ask me that question and I just shut my eyes and see what comes. And it's my son [Gabriel Harris, who is playing percussion on the Fare Thee Well tour]. I was absent so much of his early life, and rather than just burden myself with these mountains of guilt, we see somebody together and get some help talking, and we've become really wonderful friends. … I'm proud of that. We're now really close to being best friends, and I can still be a mom.
Do you get discouraged politically?
Bitter and angry?
Yeah. I'm like everybody. Some days I just turn off the TV for a week and close up the news because it's too disgusting. It's all about evil and cruelty and lack of empathy, or rather no empathy. We should stop being so surprised.
Do you have cause for hope?
I do. Like with the Parkland kids. They have a movement and the brains to find the right people to talk to. They might have time to win some of the goals they have. I'll put my energy and my money there and hope people will find that they can accomplish something and create a better world.