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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Joan Baez Marks 50 Years of Folk and Activism

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Joan Baez has been one of the leading protest singers of the past 50 years and an outspoken activist on behalf of enough causes to fill a notebook, but one thing she had always declined to do is endorse a candidate for political office on any level—until 2008, that is, when she broke with tradition to throw her support behind presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“It’s just that this was a statesman and a highly intelligent human being,” Baez says, explaining her decision. “I knew I would no longer be embarrassed by our president. I think it’s just odd for me, feeling that the cohesiveness that we needed in the world at that moment turned out to be a black candidate for president—not a songwriter, not somebody from the street, not a Martin Luther King, but a man running for office … And it turned out to be this man.

“I don’t regret it (the endorsement) so far,” she says.

Outside of her political advocacy, Baez has plenty of musical activities to keep her busy, including her fall tour of the United States. Baez is touring in support of 2008’s Day After Tomorrow, which has been widely acclaimed as one of her finest efforts in a career that stretches back to the early 1960s.

For her concerts, Baez says she usually does four or five songs from Day After Tomorrow and leaves plenty of room to vary the set list from night to night.

“I have a skeleton of a set list,” Baez says, noting that her guitarist, John Doyle, often suggests different songs to swap into the set. “He’ll be fishing around in my old stuff or finding something he loves and just grab it. And often in the same night we’ll try to place it (in the set) and we’ll throw something else out and put it in. If it flies, then we’ll make the switch.”

Day After Tomorrow
, with its rootsy, mainly acoustic sound, is a return to the stripped-down folk that defined Baez’s early, influential albums, including her 1960 self-titled debut album, her 1961 follow-up, Joan Baez, Vol. 2, and 1962’s Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1, which made Baez and her one-time boyfriend Bob Dylan key forces in the resurgence of folk music.

Some of the credit for the throwback approach on Day After Tomorrow can go to the album’s producer, Steve Earle.

Baez has known Earle, an accomplished songwriter and performer, for years and has also toured with him, so she believed the partnership would work in the studio.

“I just knew his music and knew him enough to know that it just felt like the right match,” Baez says. “He was this earthy dude. I knew he was as scratchy as I was pure, as far as the work went. And that was a perfect combination.”

Beyond the rootsy sound of Day After Tomorrow, Earle’s impact is felt in the music itself, as Baez recorded three songs by Earle (“God Is God,” “I Am a Wanderer” and “Jericho Road”). She also chose songs from such contemporary tunesmiths as Eliza Gilkyson (“Rose of Sharon”), Patty Griffin (“Mary”) and Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett (“Scarlet Tide”).

Baez says working with Earle is one of the main reasons she looks at Day After Tomorrow as one of the most memorable album projects of her long career.

“We sensed it [was special] as it was happening,” Baez says. “We sensed it. And I know a lot of it had to do with Steve. And then [it was] just his production and it’s the style and we worked the same way together—fast—and his choice of the musicians and the decision that it was going to be as earthy as it was.”

Joan Baez performs at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m.