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Not Slowing Down


(1) “The king and queen of folk,” 1963. (2) Onstage with Julia Roberts and Taylor Swift in 2015. (3) At a January rally for health care, San Francisco.

a Grammy nomination. Steve Earle, who produced the album, remembers her rejecting his suggestion that she tackle a song about Muhammad Ali. “She didn’t want to sing a song about a boxer,” Earle recalls. “She has a real-life commitment to nonviolence. What’s important to her is that she isn’t accused of being inconsistent. She was a trip.” Today, Baez’s younger fans include Rhiannon Giddens, Sturgill Simpson and Marcus Mumford. When Baez took her granddaughter Jasmine to see Taylor Swift in 2015, she found herself with Julia Roberts in the VIP section, where Swift told Baez how much she admired her, then invited them onstage during “Style.” Baez has no illusions about whether the screeching fans in that arena knew who she was. “Maybe a small percentage went home and Googled me,” she says. “But it was Taylor’s show. It was gutsy of her.” For her part, Baez shimmied down the runway for the crowd: “Probably embarrassing my family. But when I hear music, I can’t not dance.”


very 30 minutes or so, a cougar sound blares from Baez’s cellphone, a reminder to drink water – essential to help preserve her voice. Whenever Baez wondered when it would be time to stop singing, she’d always recall the advice of her first vocal coach: “Your voice will tell you.” It may be A p r i l 2 0, 2 017

telling her now. A decade or so back, as she reached her midsixties, the high notes became harder to hit. She learned how to reach those notes fast, then sing lower. “It’s all smoke and mirrors,” she says, “getting back up there and down before I make an ass of myself.” She has been playing some 60 concerts a year, but not for financial reasons. She’s invested wisely, although she adds, “Nothing to do with weapons or destroying the planet.” Even that part of her life is wrapping up. She’s planning one last worldwide tour, next year, right after she finishes her in-progress album, for which she’s already cut covers of songs by Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter and Anohni. “There’s a feeling that things are winding down, and I wanted to do one more studio effort,” she says. She’s even recording with the same acoustic guitar she used on her first album (it has been refurbished several times). “She’s at peace with it,” says Joe Henry. “She has other things she’d like to

focus on, like her painting. I didn’t feel like it was with any regret.” With the help of a vocal therapist, Baez is learning how to loosen up her throat. “All those years you think, ‘I want it to sound like it did 10 years ago,’ ” she says. “It ain’t gonna happen. The upper voice gets less and less power to it. If the public has a problem with it, it’s their problem. I said, ‘This is it, this is me.’ ” She’s learning to isolate the high notes, and at her kitchen table, she demonstrates the bursts of power she can still deliver. “Go ahead and plug your ears,” she advises. “I mean – seriously. There’s a noise I do.” The loud, penetrating burst of sound erupts from Baez’s throat for a few seconds – an almost operatic blast of lung power. When she finishes, she smiles mischievously. “I probably broke your tape recorder,” she says. baez’s house has few obvious mementos of her career: no wall of gold records, no photos with famous friends. nstead there are paintings, by Baez, of usicians and activists. Some are in her iving room – Emmylou Harris; Baez’s ate sister Mimi – and more are in a converted pool house that’s now her painting studio. There, you’ll find portraits of David Crosby and congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis. The most prominent painting in the canvas-crammed room is one of a grim-faced Dylan, based on a vintage Eighties photo. “I call it his happy face,” Baez cracks. Their on-again, offagain romance in the Sixties lasted less than two years, but for fans it had serious symbolic weight. Dubbed the king and queen of folk (often to Dylan’s displeasure), they made for a commanding presence, sharing microphones at rallies and exuding a New Frontier vigor. “Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Dylan said recently. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress.” By 1965, though, Dylan’s desire to move toward rock and his waning interest in protest songs helped drive them apart. Baez thinks her distaste for drugs distanced her from Dylan in the Sixties and later, during their reunion on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue. “I was the only one who didn’t do drugs,” she says of those shows. “It was the same as that trip to England,” she adds, referring to the 1965 Dylan tour documented in Don’t Look Back. “I couldn’t connect with what their brains were doing.” The specter of Dylan hovers around Baez. His and her albums are intertwined in her LP collection. She says “Diamonds and Rust,” a 1975 song about the happiest time in their relationship, is her finest creation. “The really, really good stuff comes from down deep,” she says, [Cont. on 57] |

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