Backstage With Joan Baez

University Essays: Lesson 14, Reading 4

by Colman McCarthy

I can’t tell you how boring it would be for me,” said Joan Baez, “to give a concert and not have it be connected with people’s lives and people’s suffering and real issues. There’s no music for me outside of that.”

For two hours, Joan had performed for 3,000 people at Constitution Hall, one of 27 singing dates in her seven-week tour just completed. Her soprano voice remains unaffectedly pure. Now, though, the concert was over, and Joan was in a backstage reception room with 25 high school students. Last spring, they were in my pacifism class at School Without Walls. We had studied an essay on peace that Joan wrote in 1966, when, as today, she was in a fierce hurry to get on with it.

A few weeks before she came to Washington, Joan, a woman of generosity, gave an emphatic “yes” when I asked if she would meet with my students. I had come to know her years before when she would pass on information about political prisoners. She had a moral firmness that I have known in few others. Bring your kids to the concert, she said, and we can talk and relax after. That was a large gift in itself, but Joan then gave them $240 worth of front-row tickets.

The students loved her singing, and backstage they connected quickly with her mind. She was not a star now. She was a constellation of ideas, questions, opinions, and reconsiderations. During the concert, Joan surprised many in the audience by dedicating a song, “Goodnight Saigon,” to the Marines in Lebanon and their families: “That may sound strange coming from me, but I really am a person who is committed to the sanctity of all human life, especially young men who need not have died in their prime.”

In spirals of anecdotes and theories, she built a case that gradually peaked into the high ideal that radical nonviolence is the best and only answer worth offering to children. “I understand any kid who looks at the news in the morning and says, ‘I wanna smoke dope for the rest of my life.’ It’s so huge what we’re facing, so scary.” Joan said it was her commitment to offer to young people alternatives to despair.

Briefly into her talk, Joan, who sat atop a dressing table, asked for questions. Draft registration was first. “The draft has no right to exist,” she answered. “Nobody has the right to tell you how you are going to live your life. What they’ll tell you is, you have to preserve democracy around the world. But you can’t bring democracy into an undemocratic set-up. And the least democratic set-up I can think of, offhand, besides possibly the U.S.S.R., is an army.” She advised the students to study the alternative options to the draft, including jail if that’s what it comes to.

As a pacifist, was she ever afraid of violence? “The fear is always there,” she said. She told stories of being in Hanoi during the Vietnam War and taking to the shelters to avoid being killed by American pilots dropping bombs on the city. She had had bomb threats in Belfast, police-state threats in Argentina and Chile, Billy club threats in Mississippi. “You learn to pray,” she said.

One student wondered what Joan believed “U.S. interests” means, considering that the phrase is used repeatedly in foreign policy discussion. “What do you think they are?” she asked the student. He said they were so “ambiguous and vague” that “I have no idea.” Joan replied, “I agree with you. I don’t know what they mean.”

On tax resistance as a way of protesting the government’s military policies, Joan said that she refused to cooperate with the IRS in the 1960s and that it may be time to say “no” again. “It may be much more of a risk this time. I also have to decide that if I end up in jail, is that worth it? Probably yes. It’s probably the best thing I can do.”

None of this was too heavy for the students. Joan’s radical nonviolence was not irrelevant to their lives. Some let her know that in their gut they felt the same revulsion to the world’s violence that Joan felt when she was a teenager going to Quaker meeting houses. She sensed then that only pacifism and organized resistance to violence was the answer. She has given her life, and her talent, to it.

When she was last in Washington, Joan had called. We met and spent time talking about her just completed trips to Latin America. There, she had been seeking to renew the energy of her folk singing with its only strength, the folk. In Argentina, she sang at a Mass for the mothers of citizens who had disappeared. In Brazil, she met with labor leaders who had been punished for striking. In Chile, she sang in a free concert for a Santiago human rights group.

The primitivist governments in each of these countries found Baez and her music too threatening. She was denied permission to give commercial concerts. Banned in public, she sang in private — in churches, homes, and anyplace else where people gathered to ease their anguish about the systematic violence that is crushing them daily. Joan sang their own songs of hope to them, as well as those that have risen up from the repressed in other countries.

Amid the torturing and silencing that is standard equipment in these countries, Joan, even if she weren’t a glowing artist of independent mind, would have still been a worrisome figure for the governments. She is the president of Humanitas International, a human rights organization. Based in Menlo Park, California, it already has 5,000 paying members. It is different from similar groups because Joan is an activist, not a theoretician. She will turn up in. a Chile or a Northern Ireland, just as she went in 1979 to the refugee camps in southeast Asia. She has denounced the “Stalinist leadership” in Vietnam as vehemently as the oligarchy in El Salvador.

Humanitas International, she says, is “quite simply, for the right to life. We recognize that Somalian refugees, Salvadoran peasants, and Cambodian children are not concerned with the fine points of Marxism or capitalism—they are struggling for their survival. And if what we can do in our small way aids in that struggle, then all our efforts are worthwhile.”

Those words have meaning. Aside from her persistent idealism and her commitment to nonviolence, Joan is matched by few performing artists for using talent on behalf of the world’s poor.

Backstage at Constitution Hall, Joan spoke to the students not as children but as adults with crucial choices to make. They were grateful. They didn’t want prolix philosophizing or another there-are-no-easy-answers lecture. Joan gave them what they wanted: a call to action, a call to conscience.

from The Washington Post


This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *