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Interview: Joan Baez On 'Little Victories And Big Defeats'

U.S. folk singer Joan Baez signs her autobiography during a visit to Prague on September 16.
U.S. folk singer Joan Baez signs her autobiography during a visit to Prague on September 16.
Joan Baez -- an iconic American folk singer and civil-rights activist -- joined Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, and Frederik Willem de Klerk in Prague as delegates at this month's annual Forum 2000 conference promoting human rights.

RFE/RL correspondents Hannah Kaviani and Salome Asatiani spoke with Baez about her work, beliefs, and social activism.

RFE/RL: A few weeks ago, the world marked the 50th anniversary of a significant day -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and the 1963 March on Washington. You were one of the musicians who sang at the podium that day. So where do you see the civil rights movement now? Has it achieved what it should have achieved, or do you think there is still a long way to go?

Joan Baez: I think it's both, and there's a long way to go for everybody everywhere, because the world, in general, is going to hell, you know? It's hard to remember, or hard to think, that in the beginning of that, black people couldn't go into a white bathroom and couldn't go in through the front door of a restaurant or a hotel all over the South -- and more than just the South. So the initial enormous change gets a little forgotten.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan during the 1963 March on Washington.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan during the 1963 March on Washington.
Now, with the problems there are interesting things that have happened. We have a black president. And, as [is] my opinion, the people who were not happy with our victories with civil rights were so angry. And nobody listened to them. We had the day. And I think now they've turned into a Tea Party of angry people. I mean, a lot of different things have happened. But initially, we have to say that it was a huge difference that was made since the beginning [of the civil rights movement], and has lasted. And at the same time, there are ghettos. There are kids who can't walk to school on the streets because they're shooting at each other. So the racism is huge. It's not the only problem, but it's a big one.

RFE/RL: So you still see a long way to go, then?

Baez: It's hard to find something that doesn't have a long way to go. My little motto is "Little victories and big defeats." If you accept the big defeats, then everything you do as a small victory becomes real important. Or you see it as important -- as it is -- instead of trying to compare it to the big picture, which is too big and too complicated, and in many places, too awful to really want to deal with. So many young people say they are moved by something -- Romanian orphans, or whatever. There are a lot of young people who say it doesn't feel like the 1960s because we are not connected that way. But there are kids doing things everywhere in the world.

That feeling of connectedness? I experienced it for the first time since the 1970s, the early 1970s, with [U.S. President Barack] Obama. And I wish that he had stayed out of the office and had run another movement. I mean, that's where the power would have been and he wouldn't have to compromise everything, including his soul, in the Oval Office.

RFE/RL: The changes that have taken place since the March on Washington are undeniable. But still, when people talk about the 1960s, we often hear cliches about the hippies growing up, cutting their hair and selling out, becoming yuppies. Why do you think this happens?

Baez: For me, and the people I knew -- and in a way, in those days the country was divided -- you were either for the [Vietnam] war, or you were against the war. Very simple. Those of us who were against the war got up in the morning, we knew what our job was -- to go and find new and different ways to end the war. For me, it was deeper than that because I had been a nonviolent activist since I was 15. So two dynamics. One is the people who entered their political activism by way of the war in Vietnam. By the time it was over, they didn't have the foundation -- political or social foundation -- to stay and find the next thing to do. So they went back to what they were doing.

In my case, I had that foundation. Even I was disoriented at the end of the war. It took too long to do this and I think we didn't celebrate ourselves enough, because it was not [U.S. President Richard] Nixon who ended the war. It was international pressure and everything that we did, every day. Without that in front of us, we all had different reactions and I think people did go back to their lives and they did get greedier. And there hasn't been something since that calls us together in that way.... Trying to reproduce the '60s is impossible. There has to be a way -- you know, things like this [event] -- the Forum [2000]. At least you're forward-thinking instead of wishing that you were at Woodstock.

RFE/RL: Do you see a connection between the political activism of the 1960s and the current Occupy movement, with its anticorporate spirit?

Baez: I had a very strong feeling at the beginning of Occupy that there was that possibility of doing something together. In my opinion, even though some of it is still functional in different places in the [United] States and in the world, the job is so huge and the stakes are so complex. Without the leadership which they refuse -- and I understand that they don't want leaders and so on -- and with the government infiltration? I mean the U.S. has spent a lot of money making sure that every little group got screwed up by a couple of paid [infiltrators]. I lived through that in the 1960s. I mean, we tried to pick out who was paid from the government. And there were a lot of people. So that didn't help Occupy at all.

RFE/RL: What is your opinion about the intersection between art and activism? Do artists have a responsibility to speak out on social and political issues?

Baez: All I can say is from my own experience -- that it is the connectedness with the people, the prisoners, the people in the war; that I was able to speak where a lot of people couldn't speak. But that's what's given my life the richness that it has. The first gift I had was this voice. It was a gift. So I can say whatever I want about it. And the second gift was that I wanted to use it the way that I've used it because it has brought me the most satisfaction in my life and the richness.

I guess, what I'm trying to say -- when Aung San Suu Kyi was talking last night, did she say "richness?" She said a word like that. It means there is no such thing as sacrifice. I mean, people look and say, "Ah, you've sacrificed so much." I didn't sacrifice anything. I mean, if I had not been able to do the things that I wanted to do, that would have been a sacrifice. So that's all I can say. Because you can't tell somebody, "You know, you really ought to be socially conscious."

RFE/RL: For Iranians, you were the first and one of the loudest voices to support the Green Movement in June of 2009 when you sat in your kitchen and you sang "We Shall Overcome" with some verses in Persian. It was an incredible act and Iranians saw it in a very powerful way -- that the world is hearing them. How did you come to make that video?

Baez: My assistant who runs the office, she keeps her eyes out for things like this. I had been watching what was going to happen and I got so excited because the possibilities were so big. And so I said, "Well, let's do something." And she said, "Why don't you sing it?" Together we worked it out. She brought over her little phone camera thing that she did it on. Here was a natural. And then I had to get ahold of somebody who could teach me the words. They were very difficult. The words were difficult.

RFE/RL: But you sing it perfectly. You pronounce everything perfectly in Persian.

Baez: I have a good ear. I work until I get it. In any language I will. So then it was really quite simple. And then she tweeted it in and, bang!

RFE/RL: There are more than 400,000 views of that performance on the original YouTube post. Did you expect to get the reaction it caused?

Baez: I never know. No. I did it in Turkey recently. And there wasn't -- you know, I don't know where I'm known, where I'm not known. But I just do it and if it takes, it takes.

RFE/RL: Do you still follow developments in Iran?

Baez: No, I haven't been.

RFE/RL: You were very well known in the Soviet part of the world during the Soviet era. Western rock music was so popular that, as Czech President Vaclav Havel said, it was the music that initiated the popular revolutions that brought down the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. Were you aware back then that you were having such an impact on the other side of the world? Did you know about rock music records being smuggled there illegally?

Baez: Yeah, I knew. I didn't know the extent of it. But I know that when there is oppression, the underground is the most efficient place to be anywhere in the world. You have to get the message out. If you are brave enough, you'll do the smuggling. And also, [since] I started working with Amnesty International, I have [had] a better idea of all the countries that I was working with.

RFE/RL: In the West, many left-oriented groups and individuals seemed to find it difficult to work out a clear position about the Soviet Union. There was this other side of the world that was socialist and formally committed to "equality." But it was politically oppressive and unjust. You were an exception, extending your critical voice on human rights issues to the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain as well. How did you make sense of this?

Baez: I wasn't really left-oriented. I mean, a lot of what I did was for the left. And then I [supported the Russian civil rights activist] Natalya Gorbanevskaya and things like that because it didn't make any difference to me which side it is. So it was perfectly natural for me to support political prisoners in the Soviet Union and in Russia. You know, people are confused by that because if you are left, you are usually left. If you are right, you are right. And I'm certainly not in the middle because I'm active on both sides. That can be confusing for people.

RFE/RL: Lastly, on a different topic -- what would you say about how the role of women has evolved in popular culture since the 1960s? Especially the phenomenon of the female icons in pop music who claim they personify women's liberation and empowerment, but are criticized by many feminists for contributing to a culture where women's bodies are objectified?

Baez: There's no harm in it. But you can't ask for another reaction if this is how you make yourself appear. The Grammys have very little to do with music. It's all entertainment and included in that is just a lot of lady stuff. Women stuff. And it's not exactly a hotbed of women's liberation.

And also, there's a difference between women who [are behind the scenes]. People would say, "Wasn't it a struggle in the entertainment world?" Well, not for a star. It does not care what sex you are, in-between or both. So it's the women trying to get a job in the record company, or trying to get a job as an engineer. That still is breaking through.

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