Anyone looking for new songs from Joan Baez when she headlines the Vancouver Folk Music Festival on Saturday night had better rethink their expectations.
While the ’60s icon and activist is still performing with her customary aplomb, off-stage she’s more likely to find herself painting than chasing the songwriter’s muse.
In fact, almost the first thing she says, when the Georgia Straight tracks her down in Denver, Colorado, is that she hasn’t written a song “for over 20 years”.
The follow-up pretty much asks itself: why not?
“I don’t know,” Baez answers. “But it stopped of its own accord, and I just had too many other things to do than try to learn how to write songs. And I would have had to, you know? I mean, I just wrote them without any workshops or anything like that. When it stopped, I could have probably concentrated on it and tried to really learn how to officially write a song, but I didn’t do that. I went on to other things.”
If Baez has any regrets about that particular well running dry, they’re not major. And it’s not surprising that she takes an unsentimental view of her own abilities, given that she was romantically involved with the greatest songwriter of our era, Bob Dylan, back in the day when his still-rising star was shining brightest.
“I think I wrote one spectacular song and a bunch of A minuses or Bs, and that’s it,” she says. “I think that’s just how it is, and that’s fine.”
That spectacular song is of course “Diamonds and Rust”, a sharp-eyed appraisal of her relationship with Dylan and the one self-penned effort that’s rarely absent from Baez’s set lists.
“People get very nostalgic when I sing that song. I see them holding hands and looking all sort of misty,” she says, laughing. “It did affect their lives.”
Baez hasn’t given up on recording, however, even if her last studio release was 2008’s Day After Tomorrow. She’s planning to make another album soon, although just what shape it’ll take remains unclear.
“Part of the problem is that the era in which I came on the scene was a 10-year period of exceptional talent,” she notes. “I mean, nobody could top Dylan; they’ve been trying to for years. Nobody can really top John Lennon.…So what we’re looking for—what people in general are looking for and longing for—are the universal songs that bring us together, and that are of really high quality. But those are hard to find. I know that the Occupy movement was looking for the right songs, and they ended up singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ because the songs that the group was looking for didn’t exist.”
In the interim, Baez could do worse than return to the Appalachian ballads that inspired her earliest days. After all, her touring band includes the remarkable roots musician and folk scholar Dirk Powell, a quiet virtuoso on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and accordion.
“That ain’t a bad idea at all,” the 73-year-old singer agrees. “He is extraordinary, and I’m sure he would have ideas, you know. And he’s with me, so I’ll ask him tonight. That could happen.”
If it does, you read it here first.
Joan Baez plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival main stage on Saturday (July 19).