In 1968, Brooklyn-born Mexican-American girl named Joan Baez, was arrested and jailed for barricading the door at a military induction center. She explained she was protesting America’s practice of drafting men to fight in the Vietnam war.
As she sat in the cell, a man named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to visit her and thanked her for her anti-draft efforts. She and Dr. King developed a close relationship, and Baez continued to support him and his vision of peaceful protesting.
There are dozens of similar stories like this floating around Joan Baez’s status as an activist icon. The places she went, the people she met, the historic events she was a part of. Stories of her singing at the 1963 March on Washington, standing in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez during the “Bloody Summer” of 1973, or most recently, making an appearance at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016.
But there is another part of Baez’s identity that is just as fundamental as her bleeding-heart activist role. It is that of an American music legend. A rockstar who performed at the Woodstock Festival. A beloved folk singer who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Brooklyn-born songstress has never been just a singer or just an activist — she is and always has been both: a singer whose voice could bring listeners to their knees, and an activist like American music has never seen. Both identities together made her into, as Rolling Stone aptly put it, America’s first ‘protest singer.’
Baez has chalked up her passion for social justice to her upbringing. Her father was a Mexican-born physicist, her mother a Scottish-born pacifist. Her parents were liberal intellectuals passionate about non-violence and raised Baez and her two sisters in the Quaker faith.
“I was eight when [parents] became Quakers, and the American Friends Service Committee is the active wing of the Quakers,” she told BBC Radio. “[The AFSC] go to various places in the world and do good things for numbers of people. When I was fifteen, I was out demonstrating with my dad and mom and family against the bomb shelters. So, that active part, I’m sure, came from the family.”
Because of her father’s profession, Baez grew up rootless — traveling all over the world from Buffalo to Baghdad. Her exposure to so many cultures and communities gave her a unique perspective on her ethnic identity, which changed depending on where she lived.
Throughout the years, Baez has relayed stories of being called the N-word by a racist neighbor in Clarence, New York, when he caught a glimpse of her darker skin tone. She tells another story about how she witnessed school segregation between white and Mexican students first hand when her family lived in Redlands, California.
It’s experiences like these that shaped Baez’s strong sense of right and wrong, as well as her strong pull to act on those beliefs. And for the endlessly talented Baez, music became the primary vehicle in which she could promote her activism.
Baez began performing around Boston in 1958 and quickly garnered attention for her singular, transcendent voice — a thrilling soprano with a three-octave range. Her voice, paired with her signature renditions of melancholy folk songs and negro spirituals, had the power to take a listener’s breath away.
Baez herself hasn’t downplayed her voice, calling it a “gift” for which she herself can’t take any credit. “My greatest gift given to me by forces which confound genetics, environment, race, or ambition, is a singing voice,” she wrote in her memoir, “And A Voice to Sing With.” “My second greatest gift, without which I would be an entirely different person with an entirely different story to tell,” she continued, “is a desire to share that voice…”
Although Baez has admitted that she “could’ve done opera” with a voice like hers, she also explains that she was attracted to folk music because of the genre’s fundamental connection to the experiences of every-day humans. “It appealed to me that folk music was connected with people and with the earth,” she told Boston Public Radio.
It was in the thriving folk-music scene of Greenwich Village that Baez first became acquainted with Bob Dylan, who would later become the defining romantic relationship of her life — a relationship she came to resent. Baez and Dylan became each other’s’ muses and collaborators, bonding about the passion for social justice and folk songs.
And although Baez is not fluent in Spanish, she has released Spanish-language songs over the years, including a full-length Spanish-language album in 1974 called “Gracias a la Vida.” “Maybe it’s significant that I chose Spanish [to sing in],” she told Mercury News when she was asked about her Mexican heritage. “I knew it was in my blood. I wasn’t going to learn a German song.”
Unlike some celebrities, as Baez’s fame grew, her commitment to social justice never dwindled. In fact, it could be argued her fame had the opposite impact. Baez herself has admitted that she has an “obsessive” fixation with politics and activism, an obsession that kept her from slipping into the all-too-common celebrity habit of apathy.
Baez has written numerous songs about causes near and dear to her heart. Songs like 1967’s “Saigon Bride” protesting the Vietnam War. Or her 1971 rendition of “Deportee,” a song condemning the racist treatment of migrant farmworkers. Or 1974’s “Gracias a la Vida,” which she described as a “message of hope to the Chileans suffering under Augusto Pinochet.” And who could forget her 2017 viral sensation “Nasty Man,” which was about…well, you can guess.
Now 79-years-old, Baez still has an unwavering belief that music can be a force for good in the world. “Songs change a lot,” she told The Guardian in 2019. “Music lifts the spirits, crosses boundaries, and can move people to do things they would not otherwise have done.”
Baez’s “realistic optimism” — an outlook she attributes 80% of to denial — is something we could learn from. Particularly in these turbulent times, when simply turning on the news can feel overwhelming. Baez’s commitment to using her gifts and her talents to make a difference in the world is a skill we could all learn.
Because, if we’re honest, not all of us have the money to donate hundreds of dollars to the causes dear to our hearts. Not all of us have the economic bandwidth to volunteer. Not all of us have bodies that allow us to march in the streets. But we all have the unique talents that make us who we are. And every single one of us can use our own skills to make a positive impact on the world.