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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Joan Baez, left, and her mother Joan Baez Sr., before an October 19th. concert at the Calvin Theater

(Photo by Jan Sturmann)


November 6, 2003

"It was never about the money, it was about the adulation," Joan Baez told a sold-out auditorium in North Adams recently just before launching into her third encore. The grand finale was "Gracias a la Vida" and the crowd, mostly contemporaries of the 62-year-old singer, swooned to the ballad written by Violeta Parra, before giving Baez a third standing ovation.

When the houselights came up, the four-man band, with the help of a local stage crew, packed the equipment into the luggage compartments of their motor coach. Soon, they were on the road to their next venue in Northampton.

Baez sat at the cafeteria-style table eating a boneless chicken dinner off a Styrofoam plate while keeping one eye on the CNN headlines. Baez's 90-year-old mother, "Big Joan" (they share a first name as well as a last), had joined the tour for a few days and sat across the table participating in the banter.

The other musicians and Crook Stewart III, Baez's long-haired road manager of 14 years, settled into the sofas up front, some with beers, passing around bags of microwaved popcorn. When Pope John Paul II came on the TV screen, looking stiff and sickly while the newscaster's voice said the pontiff had no plans to retire, Baez implored her band not to let her go on when she reaches that stage. On second thought, she chimed into the ensuing repartee, maybe she and Bob Dylan should be wheeled into concert halls around the country for a final tour together.

Eventually, Baez disappeared to her bedroom at the back of the bus to change into a rose-colored nightgown before coming back up front to brush her teeth and engage in a little more chitchat before hitting the hay at 2 a.m.

The scene has been typical of Baez's life for three to six months a year for the last decade and a half, said Stewart, who met his wife, Robin, when she started driving Baez's bus in 1996.

Baez loves to swim and has been known to have the bus pull over at a stream and peel off her clothes for a dip. Stewart is often on the lookout for lap pools when they are in cities. Recently, in Wilmington, Del., Baez put on her iPod and stepped outside to dance in the rain, he said.

Most meals are taken on the bus; Baez sometimes rustles up breakfast pancakes for the whole entourage.

When she isn't on the road, Baez is at home in the same small town south of San Francisco where she has lived for more than 20 years. Her mother lives on the property, too. Baez is divorced and has a grown son, whose impending arrival she announced from the stage at Woodstock in 1969.

Baez spends a lot of time meditating and listening to classical music. Her favorite retreat is a treehouse where she often spends the night, weather permitting.

Baez became an almost instant legend in the early 1960s after dropping out of Boston University to work the emerging folk music clubs in and around Harvard Square. She introduced Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival and helped popularize his early work.

"For the first 15 years, I didn't know what a hall looked like if it wasn't jammed full of people," she recalled. "And then as happens to everybody - Elvis, Dylan, you name it - all of a sudden, you are not the center of the world." She didn't stop performing, but her new work didn't get much attention. "I was `a legend' only, and I didn't like that."

In the late 1980s, Baez wanted to "get back on the musical map," she said. "Part of that's pride and part of it is a dedication to the voice." So she hired a management company.

Her new album, "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar," features songs she calls "under the radar." They are known to hard-core folkies but "they haven't been out and talked about much." Her current repertoire, which includes irreverent odes like "Elvis Presley Blues" by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, is "quirky," said Baez. "It's counter cultural, it's through the eyes of people who are younger than I am, and it isn't my home base in music."

Her commitment to social causes, however, remains constant. "People say, `You can't change the world through music,' " she said. "Well, I think it isn't any fun to try to change the world without music."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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