The legendary folk singer and activist’s fierce honesty steers the new film Joan Baez: I Am a Noise
Joan Baez is integrity incarnate. For more than half a century, the folk music giant has made her name and potent soprano synonymous with thrillingly righteous cultural dissent. She was only 18 when she broke out as the Queen of Folk from the stage at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, achieving instant notoriety. (Within three years, an oil painting of her would appear on the cover of Time magazine.) Her 1960 debut album, filled with incandescent traditional ballads, set the tone for a decade that she would spend on the front lines of social change, traveling with Martin Luther King Jr. and singing “We Shall Overcome” at 1963’s March on Washington. Her immeasurable influence on music inspired the likes of Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan, who she introduced to the world.
Baez takes her imposing legacy seriously, in all the right ways. Her fierce honesty steers the new documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, which is filled with her revolutionary fervor—from her civil rights activism to her draft resistance—and is also brutally candid about her struggles with mental health, her heartbreaks, and her conflicted family history. When we speak, though, the 82-year-old Baez is buoyant, quick-witted, and delightfully self-aware. After I mention a photograph from the film, of her and author James Baldwin at a march in 1965, noting how iconic it is, she concurs: “I specialize in iconic stuff.” Calling on a Tuesday morning from her home in Woodside, California, where she continues to draw, paint, and write, Baez begins our conversation by describing how she wakes up, every morning, on a mattress in a tree.
What’s a Tuesday like for Joan Baez?
Today has been typical of me in “retirement.” I sleep in a tree. I get up, and I put on a climbing halter, because the little platform is really high. I come down, and when I’m really disciplined I get directly on the treadmill or take a walk, which I did today. I do some physical therapy stretches, because at my age there are certain things I want to accomplish, and one is not falling down. Then I did a posture class online.
How does waking up in a tree shift your perspective?
I always felt that sleeping in a tree just brought me closer to the sky [laughs]. There’s no moon right now, but those are very special moments for me. I sort of discuss it with the moon ahead of time and say, “Be sure you wake me up.” I always think somebody’s shining a light in my face, and it turns out to be the moon. Sometimes I have a bird feeder right near my head, and another one across, so the birds climb back and forth. All of that is really important to me. I wake up smiling. I quit formal therapy years ago—after I’d done the big work—and my only guidance counselor right now is a big oak tree.
The title of your new documentary, I Am a Noise, is a phrase you wrote in your diary when you were 13. It seems like such a wonderful way of complicating the image people might have of you of being a serious, pristine singer. Seventy years later, what does it mean to you to say, “I am a noise”?
Back then, being a noise was what saved my life—finding a way to cut through whatever was going on that was making me so inhibited. I began being noisy, and I’ve done that ever since.
You began attending therapy when you were in high school, and I appreciate how raw and honest the film is in putting forth your struggles with mental health. How important was it to you to share that?
I wouldn’t have bothered going into this otherwise. I decided it was going to be an honest legacy, no matter what. In the beginning, it was going to be the story of my final tour. Then I gave Karen [O’Connor, one of the directors], who is a friend, the key to my storage unit. I said, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it.” I knew there were years of tapes from therapy in there. What I didn’t know was the extent of stuff that my parents kept: all these tapes where I’m using the tape as a letter, on the train and saying, “Hi Mommy, hi Popsy. Tomorrow we’re going to go and meet Martin Luther King and sing for 40,000 people.” To talk about that is one thing, but to hear it from the moment when I was 21 is much more impactful.
Where do you think your moral clarity came from as a teenager?
When I was eight, my father became a Quaker at my mother’s suggestion. He had been looking for a church or somewhere to worship, something he trusted, because he came from a missionary family. With the Quakers comes a certain social consciousness; their service wing is called the American Friends Service Committee. We spent a year living in Baghdad, wanting to serve. Quakers don’t adhere to the nation-state mentality; a human life is more important than the nation-state. Any religion is basically telling you “thou shalt not kill,” but few religions actually adhere to that. The Quakers do. So from the Quakers I started forming my own social consciousness.
In the film, there’s a picture of you and James Baldwin hand in hand at the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. What can you tell me about that moment?
I can tell you what trouble we almost got in. He was a lovely guy, and he was funny and sarcastic. We ended up in a car—Baldwin, the white guy I’d come to the South with, a couple other people. You couldn’t do that in Montgomery. We suddenly realized, What are we doing?, and all scattered in different directions to get out of there. We thought we were just people riding around in a car and realized that, where we were, we were not people. Baldwin moved out of the country because he couldn’t stand it. He went and lived in France. I used to visit him there.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. What feeling comes to mind when you think of that day?
I’m just lucky—lucky to have the voice, lucky to know those people, lucky to be there at that time in the history of the country. So, mainly, it’s gratitude that I could be a part of something that was making social change. I knew King by then; we were friends.
How did that experience change you?
It would be hard to be somewhere so monumentally important and not have it be a turn in the road. It’s sort of like when I met Pete Seeger—that was like getting a good vaccine. It changed my life, whether I knew it or not at that point.
There’s some amazing footage in the film of you and Bob Dylan singing “It Ain’t Me Babe” together, smiling and laughing your way through it. That also demystifies the image people might have of both of you as being serious and mysterious. How does that clip make you feel now?
I just love that clip. I mean, we had our baby fat. We were really, really young, and really happy. Bob hadn’t become reclusive and all that stuff. He was just a kid, telling the crowd, “I wanna say thank you! I wanna say I love you!” When’s the last time you heard that from Bob?
You wrote a letter to your family in which you reflect on starting to hang out with Bob, and you said you felt like “a normal person.” That surprised me because he seems so…
Abnormal. What I meant was, I felt good. I thought, Oh, this is the way people feel when they fall in love. I was just happy. It didn’t last terribly long, but it gave me an idea of what it could feel like.
You went along on his infamous 1965 tour of England, documented in Don’t Look Back, as your relationship was coming apart. You describe how demoralizing it was to be around that rock ’n’ roll boys’ club, with Dylan so aloof. How did you come to forgive him?
Well, I didn’t for ages. Even with all my clever studying of Buddhism: “Forgive a little bit, you feel a little bit better. Forgive a lot, you feel a lot better. Forgive it all, and be free.” So that took, what, 60 years? Little by little, I got to appreciate him again and look back on those years and think, Wow, that was really something. Nobody wrote like that—still, nobody has written like that—and how extraordinary to be a part of that. Never mind the boys’ club; I had been a part of it with him. After those boys’ club days, we had some times that we worked together, but we were never close the way we were at the beginning.
This film is such a potent reminder of how committed you’ve remained to political resistance. Today, many young people are involved with movements and organizing, but I think a lot of them are also disillusioned by how far astray society has gone. What helped you believe that what you did mattered?
These are very discouraging days, but you have to remember and appreciate what happened and hold it in high esteem. Even if it’s just the spirit of what’s left behind—sitting at those lunch counters, getting arrested—that’s a part of our history that we should be proud of. We can’t forget what investment people made with their lives. When a young person at a Q&A says, “What can I do?,” for a while, I didn’t know. I created a list that made some sense, with 10 or 12 different groups—then, at least you can find a foothold, do something for someone else and enrich your own life. You can send money, you can get more deeply involved and volunteer, or, eventually, you can do what I think needs to be done if there’s going to be a serious social change, and that is take a risk. I’m always pushing for the good trouble, which means you’ll end up taking a risk.
On your last album, 2018’s Whistle Down the Wind, you covered the 2008 song “Another World,” by Anohni, who is one of our great contemporary artists making politically engaged music. What attracted you to that song?
That song is so deep and touches every one of my nerves. It is as sad as I get when I’m down: “I’m gonna miss the birds.” You couldn’t have matched me better than with that song. I’m eternally grateful for it.
A younger artist who has really embraced you as an influence lately is Lana Del Rey. She brought you out onstage in 2019 to duet on your 1975 hit “Diamonds & Rust.” What were your early conversations like?
She’s just a sweet, normal person. A little eccentric, you know. I feel sort of motherly to this young woman who sings to 100,000 people a night and is keeping herself together as a decent person. I was so amazed that she was asking me to sing for an audience that basically doesn’t know me. That’s a risk for an artist to take. Taylor Swift did that also—I was stunned. She walked me out on the stage, introduced me, knowing that it would be a “Huh?” from the audience. I’ve always appreciated that. With Lana, I said, “Lana, you know, your audience is one-third of my age. They won’t know me.” And she said, “Well, they should.”