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Joan Baez on Inside Llewyn Davis, folk's early days, and what it's like performing now

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

In this March 31, 2013 photo released by Metropole Hanoi, Joan Baez stands with her back to the wall of an historic bomb shelter under the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. The folk singer and social activist spent a few days recently reliving her past, returning to Hanoi for the first time since December 1972, when American B-52s were raining bombs on it. Uncredited/AP

Joan Baez is a folk singer, guitarist, activist and writer. She's been called the queen of folk — having performed and collaborated with fellow legends in the genre like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Odetta. She's performing July 3 at the Greek Theatre in Los Feliz and in anticipation of her show, Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson got Baez on the phone and talked about the old days of the folk revival, and what her music is like now.

On how she started her career in folk music:

"I was, at age 14 and 15, enamored of rhythm and blues. And that was about all I listened to. And then my aunt took me to see a Pete Seeger show when I was 16. It took like a good vaccine! And I entered that world — which I was headed towards anyway — of interest in social action, social concerns, and music. And Pete was all of that in one.

"And by then, we were moving to the East Coast, which is where all the folk clubs were, you know — in Cambridge and New York. And I lived near Cambridge and got started there."

On how the Coen Bros' "Inside Llewyn Davis" depicted the early East Coast folk revival:

"They did a good job. I mean, it was kind of ragged. And it was very smoky. It's really interesting to think back that I came up in the age when everybody was smoking and had short hair! That's kind of strange to think. 

"It was mysterious and very new. Everybody was learning new stuff constantly. They weren't really writing much yet. And I was, I guess, then I was 18 when I started at Club 47. I think Club 47 was pretty typical of the clubs. It was dingy, it served coffee — no drinks. Students came in and wanted to read or hang out and talk. And I was just impossible. If anybody said anything I would stop singing and make an issue out of it — pretty awful."

On how she discovered songs for her repertoire:

"Mostly [I learned them] through other people playing them. I mean, I could name some of those names. Or at least one of them was Debbie Green. She was a classmate of mine from my fifteen minutes in college. She taught me "Fair and Tender Maidens." That whole ilk of songs I got just from her and her teaching me. That's how a lot of us functioned.

"I didn't read much. And I got practically nothing out of song books. I started collecting things like the Carter Family and learning from that. And some more esoteric stuff. I don't know, someone would give me a record — like "El Preso Numero Nueve" was my boyfriend's record from God knows when. I tried to track it on the Internet and went way back to the 40s in Mexico. So occasional things like that that have stuck with the repertoire forever."

On how Baez' relationship with her songs changes over time:

"I think that the key word with all of this — new songs, old songs, whatever — is that they are fresh. So if it's a song that's from the beginning of time in my career and I feel like singing it again, the trick is to make it come alive. That if it's sounding has-been, then it isn't going to work. But I have clever enough musicians with me that number one: the job is to take a new song and make it listener friendly. And then the other part of the job is to find the things they recognize, and make them feel fresh."

On what her performances are like now:

"At the very beginning I had nobody for a few years. And then at some point, I guess, I started adding people. Then I had big noisy bands. I mean, you know. We all reinvent ourselves forever. And now, I have one musician who plays seven instruments — that's Dirk Powell. And my son is on percussion — light percussion. And that's it. 

"And we all get along. If we didn't get along, no matter how wonderful they were, it wouldn't work out."

BONUS: We've made a Spotify playlist with of our favorite Joan Baez songs:


Did we forget one? A couple? Let us know in the comments!

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