Exclusive: Watch a Dynamic Reinterpretation of Joan Baez’s “Civil War”

Part of a visual album accompanying the folk icon’s new release, this choreographed performance takes a lyrical look at the American conflict

Civil War (Joan Baez), With Dance Performance By Djassi Johnson and Kevin Bozeman

Joan Baez, the beloved folk singer who just this past year was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is taking a step back after more than four decades in the limelight. Her new album, Whistle Down the Wind, will be her last. Produced by singer-songwriter Joe Henry, Whistle Down the Wind features Baez covering folk pieces by nine different contemporary artists to present an intimate and personal take on modern political and cultural turmoil.

And as such, she’s going out with a brilliant touch. Accompanying the new release is a special visual album of ten short films, one for each song. Rick Litvin, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the producer of the visual album, pulled together a combination of five established filmmakers and five younger, lesser known artists to create the films. He sees this generational diversity as mirroring the “passing of the torch” that is currently occurring in the folk community, which Baez and Henry exemplify.

Last month, Litvin released an animated short memorializing the moment President Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for those slain in the Charleston church massacre.

In this brand-new video, premiering here on Smithsonian.com, the past literally illuminates the present in this dance set to “Civil War,” a song written by Henry and performed by Baez herself. Directed and conceived by NYU professor Deborah Willis and choreographed by dancer Djassi Johnson, the film presents a performance by Johnson and Kevin Boseman, dressed in 19th-century costume. Their bodies move in lyrical precision as historical and contemporary photographs are projected behind them. Antique portraits of the Civil War’s black soldiers and domestic workers overlay the dancers’ play on tension and resolution, bringing the collective memory of conflict to the forefront of modern consciousness.

The lyrics, imagery, and pacing of the song “mesmerized” Willis, and inspired her to compile a set of historical photographs from her own academic collection and that of her son, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, along with selections from the archives of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. In selecting the images, Willis focused on the personal experiences and historical moments that the song lyrics evoked for her.

“The video adds a surprise dimension to Joe Henry's song, ‘Civil War,’” Baez wrote in an email. “Executed with grace and beauty, it turns a corner even Joe could not have anticipated.”

Though Henry’s song is not explicitly about the struggle between the United States and the Confederacy, Willis’s own academic research into the experience of Black Civil War soldiers helped inform her historical approach to the video.

“I wanted to frame that concept of history, and also think about man-woman relationships. I wanted to think about how photographs reflect and reimagine history,” says Willis. “I see [the video] as expanding the ideas about the term ‘civil war.’”

“Deb Willis is an iconic, legendary figure at Tisch,” Litvin continued. “[She] had the freedom and the courage to create that relationship between the historical elements and the visual elements of projecting onto those two dancers. Simultaneously, the simplicity and the depth of the work, and how it continues to reveal new ideas over time, was extraordinary.”

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