Folk Icon Joan Baez Sings a Song of Herself

After decades in the limelight, the American musician who spent a career exposing the world’s problems explores her own past

Joan Baez in front of Alabama State Capitol
Joan Baez at the Alabama State Capitol in 1965, from Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Stephen Sonnerstein. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Joan Baez was 18 years old when she strode up to the microphone at the first Newport Folk Festival, dressed in a bright orange Mexican wrap. It was 1959, and Baez was the talk of the coffee house scene in Boston, just a brief drive north. At Newport, she dazzled an audience of 13,000 with the songs “Virgin Mary Had One Son” and “We Are Crossing Jordan River.” “I looked and sounded like purity itself in long tresses, no makeup and Bible sandals,” Baez wrote in her 1987 memoir, And a Voice to Sing With. “No wonder the press labeled me ‘the Madonna’ and ‘the Virgin Mary’ the next day.”

Baez was not particularly religious at the time (nor was she a virgin). In a journal entry from 1955, she described herself as a class clown, an artist and a drama queen who loved to be the center of attention. “I am not a saint,” she wrote. “I am a noise.”

That self-description is the title of a new documentary by the filmmakers Karen O’Connor, Maeve O’Boyle and Miri Navasky, which opens in theaters on October 6. O’Connor has known Baez since 1989, and their decades-long friendship earned the crew rare access. I Am a Noise, which is structured around Baez’s final tour in 2018-2019, is not just the story of the singer’s life. It’s a journey deep inside her mind.

Early in her career, Baez used her powerful soprano to spread the message of the civil rights movement. She performed at the March on Washington in 1963, where she led 250,000 people in “We Shall Overcome.” She sang with Harry Belafonte at the Selma to Montgomery March and escorted Black children as they integrated a Mississippi school. Baez was unwavering in her support for social justice causes, giving peace concerts in war zones into the 1990s.

Joan Baez performs "We Shall Overcome" at the March on Washington

All along, the singer was open about her personal struggles. In her 1968 book Daybreak, she wrote about “a blue-gray mood which has me flopped into a dull sadness.” Her 1987 memoir was even more candid, describing her paralyzing anxiety and a decade of quaalude use that began in the 1970s.

These highs and lows are on display in I Am a Noise, but the documentary also holds another layer, beyond just the arc of an icon’s life. “Part of the power of the film for me is, well, Joan looks fantastic—she’s beautiful—but how rare it is to see a woman aging on the screen,” O’Connor says, sitting by Baez’s side during a Zoom interview.

“Now it’s rare that I get to see myself with eyelashes!” adds Baez. “Those opening scenes. I think, my God, eyelashes like that! Nobody told me they would go away.”

I Am a Noise is a film about letting go—of lovers and family members, audiences and eyelashes. It also asks a profound question: What kind of freedom does a woman get to reclaim after she stops caring about how the world defines her and starts living for herself?

Joan Baez I Am A Noise - Official Trailer | Music Documentary | In Theaters October 6

Around the time Baez was born in 1941, folk music was starting to reach new audiences. During the Great Depression, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax traveled the country, collecting previously unrecorded folk and blues music for the Library of Congress. One of the artists he recorded was Woody Guthrie, who inspired a new generation of musical activists. Guthrie came from a small town in Oklahoma, but he headed to California in 1936 after droughts turned the over-plowed Great Plains into a “Dust Bowl.” Some of his first concerts were at migrant camps throughout the state. The later verses of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (the ones people rarely sing today) describe the kind of poverty he saw during the Great Depression, including hungry masses lining up outside a relief office. Meanwhile, Pete Seeger, a Harvard dropout who got a job assisting Lomax, started writing his own protest music with a group called the Almanac Singers. The group’s folksy 1942 song “Dear Mr. President” urged Franklin D. Roosevelt to “lick Mr. Hitler” but to also end Jim Crow, support unions and combat antisemitism at home.

Baez brought something new to the male-dominated folk scene. “Being a young woman, there's a lot projected on you,” says Meredith Holmgren, a curator of women’s music with the Smithsonian Institution. “She was one of the younger performers, and there was definitely the projection of innocence and hope for the future.”

Holmgren also notes that Baez was a leader in the urban folk music movement. While Guthrie was an Oklahoma native who sang about the Dust Bowl from personal experience, Baez, like Seeger, had been born into a highly educated family in New York City. Her mother, also named Joan, was the daughter of a Scottish Anglican priest, and her father, Albert, was a Mexican-born physicist. He enrolled in a doctoral program at Stanford while his three daughters were young and went on to develop optics for X-ray telescopes at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Albert became a devoted Quaker during Baez’s childhood, and the family regularly attended pacifist meetings. When she was still in high school, her parents brought her to an event where she met Martin Luther King Jr. By then, Baez had experienced racism of her own. “I have run into a few problems myself because of the fact that I am one-half Mexican,” she wrote in her high school journal. “I turn pretty dark in the summer.” Once the burgeoning folk singer had a platform of her own, she was eager to amplify King’s message, standing alongside powerful Black folk and gospel artists like Odetta and Mahalia Jackson. All three sang from the steps on the Lincoln Memorial that historic summer day in 1963. “The March on Washington organizers were extremely strategic, and they were very conscious about finding people who could speak to different popular audiences in America,” Holmgren says.

Another young folk singer who performed with Baez that day was Bob Dylan, one of the most important figures in her early life. The two met in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City, a legendary venue in Greenwich Village. “I saw this tattered little shamble of a human being up there, just spouting out these words,” Baez says in the film. “And I was just transfixed.” In 1963, she invited Dylan onstage at her own shows, urging her fans to give his nasal voice a chance. By the summer of 1964, they were romantically involved and spending time together in Woodstock, New York, at a house belonging to folk music manager Albert Grossman.

The film traces the arc of their romantic and creative partnership, from the “short period that we were really kids together,” as Baez puts it, to their devastating split during a 1965 concert tour in England. (Footage from the time shows Dylan telling a reporter that he and Baez were just friends.) Baez summed up their relationship in her 1970s ballad “Diamonds & Rust”: “I remember your eyes / Were bluer than robin’s eggs / My poetry was lousy, you said.”

And yet, in a scene filmed in 2019, Baez is at home practicing scales with a portrait of Dylan hanging over her piano. She painted the portrait herself and gave her former lover a grouchy expression—his face is shadowed, with one eyebrow raised and his mouth twisted into a scowl. He looks very much as though he’s telling Baez that her poetry is lousy.

“Mr. Happy Face,” she deadpans when I ask her about the painting. Then she grows reflective. “Our big rift came partly because I was pushing. I wanted him to show up at marches and be political, and it just wasn’t his interest. And I’m glad it wasn’t. He spent the time writing those songs we used. But I feel as though I am sorry. I was demanding so much of him when it wasn’t where he wanted to be.”

Joan Baez with James Baldwin and James Forman
Joan Baez with James Baldwin and James Forman in Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Matt Heron. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

After Baez and her mother were arrested in 1967 for blocking the entrance to a military center where draftees went for physicals, antiwar activist David Harris paid Baez a visit in jail, and the two married the following year. She gave birth to their only son, Gabe, at the end of 1969, while Harris was serving a 20-month sentence for refusing the draft. At the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1969, Baez showed her support by playing a new tune called “Song for David”: “In my heart I will wait / By the stony gate / And the little one in my arms will sleep.”

Privately, Baez struggled with her new role as devoted wife and mother. “I’m not very good at one-on-one relationships,” she admits in the film. “I’m great with one-on-2,000.” She frequently left home to play benefit concerts all over the world. In December 1972, not long before she and Harris divorced, she traveled to Hanoi with members of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and huddled in bunkers as American B-52 planes pummeled the city. “I knew nobody else would do that,” she says now. “Peter, Paul and Mary were not going to show up there next week. So it was my personal calling.”

Gabe talks in the film about the sense of abandonment he felt when his mother went away. “She was busy saving the world,” he says. “And no kid can understand that.” Gabe went on to become a talented percussionist, and the film shows him performing with his mother. She irons his shirt backstage and sleeps near him in the tour bus. Touring together “became a path for us of reconciling our relationship,” he says. When she finishes her very last concert, she walks straight into her son’s arms.

By the mid-1970s, Baez was losing her sense of purpose, both as an activist and as a musician. The Vietnam War was over, and the folk music of the 1960s was starting to seem outdated. Her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust had been a hit, with a title song that made it onto the Billboard Top 40. But in her 1977 album Blowin’ Away, she tried awkwardly to switch over into a more mainstream pop sound. She strangely insisted on posing for the cover in aviator goggles. “I wasn’t aware of any of it,” she says in the film. “Too much quaalude. That was my drug of choice for eight years.”

During those years, Baez wrote a song called “(For the) Children of the ’80s,” hoping to inspire a new generation. “I think I was looking for a way to keep something alive,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve written this thing. It’s really cool and it’s current. I’ll call Bono!’” She remembers the U2 singer’s reaction when she suggested recording the song with a group of A-list musicians. “He’s so sweet. He said, ‘Well, first of all, it has to be a really good song.’” She laughs. “And it wasn’t on that level.”

In 1986, Baez joined U2, Bryan Adams, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and the Neville Brothers for Conspiracy of Hope, a two-week benefit tour for Amnesty International. Hoping to break out of her 1960s image, Baez joined the Neville Brothers for a cover of the then-current Tears for Fears song “Shout.” After the first show, the tour bus left without her.

“How marginal can you get?” Baez laughs now, recalling the moment over Zoom.

“And her admitting it!” O’Connor adds with delight. “I mean, come on! How many people would do that?”

The most intimate part of I Am a Noise comes late in the documentary, when Baez walks into a storage unit and sifts through old letters, journals, drawings and cassette tapes. Baez didn’t hand over her enormous personal archives to the filmmakers until the project was well underway. “That changed the film both for us and for her,” Navasky says. “She was reading journals she hadn’t read since she had written them. She was listening to audiotaped letters that I don't think she’d ever listened to.”

The vault contained notes and recordings from hypnotherapy sessions Baez underwent around the time she turned 50. She started the sessions at the invitation of her younger sister, Mimi Fariña, who’d been uncovering disturbing memories of their father.

Baez always had her own deep sense that something wasn’t quite right. “The scrape of a new school lunch pail filled me with terror,” she recalled in her 1987 memoir. “I had attacks of nausea, and one teacher or another would hold my head while I hung over the toilet.” Her family was warm and free-spirited—we see them in old film reels, frolicking together on beaches and in the desert—so Baez couldn’t figure out the source of her dread. “What cataclysmic event shook my sunny world,” she wrote, “so that it was shadowed with unmentionable and unfathomable fright?”

Baez also began recollecting memories of her father, along with “icky feelings, exhausting feelings.” To this day, she is unsure how many of those sexually charged scenes actually happened, though she says that if even 20 percent of them were real, it would have been enough to do real damage. The therapy sessions were so well documented by Baez that we even hear Albert’s voice responding with dismay to his daughters’ accusations. Whatever may have happened, Baez believes that her parents truly didn’t remember.

Here, the film has a Rashomon quality to it. Baez’s deep archive allowed the documentarians to allow each family member to tell their version of Joan and Mimi’s childhood in their own words. “The hard thing to do is complication and ambiguity,” O’Connor says. “We wanted to show how each one experienced their family life, and let it be. They’re all beautiful, complicated people.”

Joan Baez playing a tambourine
Joan Baez on her final tour in Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Mead Street Films. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

For Baez, hypnotherapy ultimately became a way for her to shed the burden of her public self. Joan Didion wrote in a 1966 New York Times profile that “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person.” That personality was created by and for the outside world, and it masked the panic attacks and self-doubt that gripped Baez in private. But in middle age, Baez started looking inward to understand who she really was. She uncovered different facets of herself in therapy and recorded them in drawings—a protective wolf, a wise owl, a graceful doe, a baby she called Diamond Joan. “This isn’t crazy?” we hear her asking her therapist as animations of her drawings leap across the screen. “What’s crazy,” he replies, “is that there’s this woman that hasn’t been able to enjoy her life and the fruits of all the work that she’s done.”

Now that Baez is 82, she finally feels free to be exactly who she wants to be. The public used to revere her as “the barefoot Madonna,” because she liked to perform without shoes. Now she can walk around shoeless just to enjoy the feeling of the ground under her feet. One modern-day scene in the film shows her dancing barefoot in a square in Paris, closing her eyes and giving herself over to the rhythms of street drummers. It’s hard to tell whether the crowds of people filming her on their cellphones even know who she is. It’s enough to see a woman who is so joyfully at home in her own body.

“I have not missed being on the stage for a second,” Baez says. The weight of the world has finally lifted from her shoulders, though she feels for the young people who are now taking it on. Among the many paintings she’s made are portraits of the climate change activist Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “I think it’s hard for a kid who blasts into this to realize that it’s going to take your whole life,” she says of these young activists. “You sort of want to shake ‘em and say, ‘Listen, it’s going to be a choice for you, and we’re lucky to have you, but you’re not going to be able to do all of this at once.’”

One thing the younger generation doesn’t have is someone like Baez. She was able to stand in front of a massive rally and join everyone’s voices together in a single purpose. People who showed up to protest war and injustice ended up creating a palpable sense of peace. The world needs more of this kind of song, she says—“where everybody recognizes it, and has their part to sing in it.”

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