A Conversation with Joan Baez
Mike Ragogna: Joan, why did you become involved with the Innocence Project and Network?
Joan Baez: Somebody sent me a book with all those pictures of inmates on the cover, so I was poking through it and I picked one of the guys to do a portrait of, which I still have. I had read about it and I knew a little bit and as time went on, I’d hear other people talking about it and I realized it was a reasonably-sized organization. Then I saw clearly that it was well-organized and active and successful. Then my manager and I were talking about it. “What can we do to connect, something that makes sense?” In this country, there are so many things that it’s almost impossible to choose, so why not just do what draws me? I realized how excited I got about being able to do anything on the questions of mass arrest and incarceration and race. It was all packed into this one project, which is also a non-violent project. It was kind of a no-brainer.
MR: Do you feel that currently, this is the most organized response to incarceration injustice?
JB: Probably, although I can’t say I’ve canvassed it. I know that when looking for something, we eliminate a lot of other things for a lot of other reasons. For this one, one of the points that was important to us was that they have people everywhere. In every city we’re going to, there will be people to talk to, get signatures. Probably each one has a local project, which is really important, that there’s something people can connect with in their own city.
MR: Do you know of any overturned sentences since your association?
JB: I haven’t paid attention recently but I know they have a very good success rate. We didn’t have the equipment years ago for DNA testing and all that stuff. These guys have been in there way too long. There are new tools to help them. I hear about it constantly in different states, people having successes with it.
MR: What can people do on a local or even personal level to help?
JB: Just say that. “What can I do?” If you have a local Innocence Project in your city, I would go directly there. Some of them are not directly the “Innocence Project,” but you’ll find them under that. Everywhere we’re going has some representation of them. I would just call and ask.
MR: In addition to your music career, more than two-thirds of your life has been spent addressing social issues. So how are we doing these days?
JB: [laughs] We’re doing like s**t right now! It is so bad. I had this little expression, “Little victories and big defeats.” It’s kind of whatever little victories we have in front of the defeat that we’re facing. Not just Trump and that empathy-free zone, but the backdrop is global warming. Where does that leave people? I think you can have a million successes if you keep them in the current day and not plan for the future and say, “Well, this movement is going to lead to the end of war,” which is clearly not happening right now. Pick something that you know you can make a difference in and that calls you and you have your little victories. It’s the only way we can fight the big defeat.
MR: How do you think we got here?
JB: I don’t know if anybody can answer that, but what we’re watching in my opinion is understanding how Hitler got where he got: Because people voted for him. There is something weird in the atmosphere, there is something where people will stand up and say, “I’ve had enough,” and they don’t even know what they’ve had enough of. “Make America Great Again,” which is really funny, because Republicans say this is the greatest country in the world. If the progressive wing and the liberal wing don’t learn how to talk, we don’t have a chance. I heard Nancy Pelosi after that sit-in in Washington with John Lewis―it was so exciting to watch―she said, “All we are asking for is the vote.” Don’t say that. Say, “What we’re calling for.” You don’t say, “What we’re demanding.” It’s a question of words and the right wing has them all. How did “Cradle of Civilization” end up “Axis of Evil?” Conservative party think tanks know how to do that immediately, and then they own the press, so it goes to press and everybody else either just adopts it or are scrambling to change it.
MR: You’ve put a lot of your life into so many humanitarian and political causes. How do you personally keep the stamina and the energy going? It seems like progress is always a step forward but also a step back.
JB: Oh, it is. There are a couple of things. I think it’s partly the gurus I chose to teach me about non-violence. They’re all very cynical about the world. A lot of my friends in the peace movement really thought that we were going to have world peace and make it to this other level. I have these wonderful, cynical teachers who would joke about it. They would say, “We really want a world with no more nation states,” and then they’d tack on another nation state in half an hour. They were just exploding. Really part of it is to not expect too much. There’s a wonderful quote, “For us there’s only the trying, and the rest is not our business.” Unless you’re Gandhi or King and you have a way of connecting your inner spirit and inner vision with the outside world that brings people out to martyr―in India, brought half a million people down to the ocean to break the British salt tax―if you have that kind of charismatic genius, that’s one thing. If you don’t, you just have to do what you know is right and try to make it relevant and try to do it in an intelligent way, like Innocence Project. They’re intelligent and they’ve picked something we can do now on a daily basis.
MR: It’s hard because you have the internet putting absolutely anything out there as “fact.” Personally, I think the people who are following Trump have a physical, organizational power that is more guttural, whereas it seems the educated and inspired don’t really do that. They think petitions on the internet can handle it all.
JB: I think you’re on the right track, absolutely, and I would bring language back into it. I think the latest campaign manager for Hillary was on The Rachel Maddow Show and she asked, “How are you going to do this? How are you going to turn people around?” and he said, “We’re just going to keep putting the facts out there.” They don’t give a damn about facts. Facts are absolutely useless and have nothing to do with anything or Trump would’ve been whisked off the stage on the first day. We haven’t learned how to speak and know “facts” are nonsense.
MR: Do you think incarceration rates and false conviction rates will be affected by the results of this presidential race?
JB: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I think it’s a blatant horror with Trump, and with Hillary, I’ve sure got my problems. She’s not anti-death penalty, and she talks about bombs raining on Israel and they have a right to protect themselves, which leaves no room for Palestine in discussion. At the same time, though, she’s not suggesting we load all Mexicans onto a train and dump them. I think he goes into a kind of barbarity that she is definitely not interested in.
MR: When you said that, I couldn’t help but remember the lyrics, “...goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita.”
JB: Yeah, we sing that every night.
MR: Let’s talk about your seventy-fifth birthday celebration. Look at your adoring circle of cohorts!
JB: [laughs] I’m proud of it!
MR: They celebrated your music and your activism. So let’s go there...what are your thoughts about your music and your activism at this point in your life?
JB: Well, I know I’ve been true to myself, I am stuffy enough to think I’ve been right most of the time. Even if maybe I wasn’t right, I was still trying to be true to myself in taking one risk or another. But for the most part, when I look back, I think, “Yeah, you did okay. You stuck to non-violent principles, you weren’t afraid to get out in the streets when it needed to be done,” I’m happy that I brought joy and courage to other people, at least that’s what they tell me. It isn’t something like, “Oh, I wish I’d been a republican all along,” nothing in any massive style like that. It’s just smaller things.
MR: Joan, my traditional question: What advice do you have for new artists?
JB: There are varieties of them. If it’s to the Grammy clan, I don’t really know what to say to people who have no interest in outside stuff. On the other hand, along will come Lady Gaga with a statement about something, and certain things reach certain people, so they can go on trying. I’ve never met an older musician in a band who hasn’t said something to me about, “Oh, my parents had your albums,” or “I grew up with your music.” It always astounds me because they’re big rock stars and I’m always flattered. I think it’s in there somewhere. They’ve seen something they admire and appreciate. Sometimes it clicks immediately and something happens with them or they take a little step. You keep on just doing what you’re doing and answering questions.
There are lots and lots of singers who are already committed, and the only problem that we have is, one, the ten years of brilliant talent that happened in the sixties and early seventies was a ten-year phenomenon. We don’t have that right now. How do you repeat Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan... You don’t. You’ve got to find something else, something new, or build it, or whatever. I think they’re kind of fighting uphill; people are trying to remake that time period. The question is how do we use the resources we have and the talents we have and the people who are willing to take the risk? I don’t know whether you know that Emmylou Harris was just in Ethiopia studying the refugee issue, and Patty Griffin stayed home and went down to Novalis in Mexico to study the whole thing. Going to Mexico has its risks, going to Ethiopia has its risks. A lot of people do this, and hopefully, their campaign will see some light. I know I’m going to go sit in on one of their concerts because I have a day off on the tour. It’s about refugees, one of the primary issues of the day. People do things and they maybe will be heard and maybe not, but they are there.
MR: Beautiful. Over the years, you took so many risks, whether it be in protests or taking stands on social issues. Joan, I’m sure I’m not the first interviewer to say this to you but thank you for all your contributions to our culture.
JB: [laughs] Thank you, thank you.
MR: You also marched with Martin Luther King Jr.. What do you think of this person who did all these things and are you comfortable with being the icon that you are?
JB: First of all, there’s a key thing that you said; “What do you think of this person?” When I do look back, it’s as though I am looking at somebody else, because I was so young...so bloody young. If I look back at it objectively, I say, “Wow, she did a lot in her day. She took a lot of risks.” “Risk,” by the way, is a key word to me, because I don’t think that real social change can happen unless people are willing to take a risk. That’s one of the problems now. We’ve gotten complacent. This is the age of the entitled. I live near Silicon Valley and it’s filled with entitled people who never did a goddamn thing for anybody else in their lives, but they feel as though they don’t have to. In a sense, I was lucky and was brought up with a socially conscious family and that’s probably where it all started. I got a leg up in that department.
MR: So what you’re really saying is “Vote for Trump.”
JB: Yeah, that’s it! You got it. We didn’t have to spend all that time talking, I could’ve just said that at the beginning. [laughs]
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JOAN BAEZ CONFIRMED TOUR DATES
October 4 Portland, ME Merrill Auditorium
October 6 Hartford, CT Mortensen Hall at The Bushnell
October 8 Boston, MA The Wang Theatre*
October 9 Philadelphia, PA Academy of Music*
October 12 Westbury, NY Theatre at Westbury
October 13 Port Chester, NY The Capitol Theatre
October 15 Montclair, NJ The Wellmont Theatre
October 16 Washington, DC Lisner Auditorium
October 19 Cleveland, OH State Theatre
October 20 Carmel, IN The Palladium
October 22 Madison, WI Capitol Theatre
October 23 Milwaukee, WI Pabst Theatre
October 25 Chicago, IL Symphony Center
October 26 Minneapolis, MN State Theatre
October 29 Denver, CO Paramount Theatre
October 30 Santa Fe, NM Lensic Performing Arts Center
November 1 Phoenix, AZ Celebrity Theatre
November 3 Santa Barbara, CA Arlington Theatre
November 5 Los Angeles, CA Disney Hall
November 6 Oakland, CA Fox Theatre
November 7 Oakland, CA Fox Theatre
*w/ special guest Mary Chapin Carpenter