For all the elders

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Photos by Christie Goodwin
AUGUST 27, 2018

Joan Baez watched the mayor of Charleston, S.C., work himself to the point of tears. “She is going to sing not just a song, she is going to sing … the song,” John Tecklenburg declared from a makeshift stage in a downtown park. “This is a lady who’s not just talked the talk and sang the songs of our life, but she has …” and he kept on rhapsodizing until he got out of breath. “She was there in 1963, and she is here with us today … Joan Baez!”

Baez hugged him on the way to the microphone, where she said, “I told him that was pretty good for a white guy.” At 77, she can’t help letting a little air out of most attempts to glorify her. And yet here she was, doing again what is the essence of her legend: showing up where the action is, with a song and a faith that a song can make a difference.


Mulford was in the audience at the rally, slightly dazzled. “I heard Joan’s voice for the first time in music class when I was 8 years old,” she told me. “I was listening to her music when I was in my 20s and picking up a guitar and deciding what I wanted to sound like. She has been one of my heroes.”

~~~  WATCH  ~~~

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‘We shall overcome’: How singer Joan Baez still fuels the resistance
Singer and activist Joan Baez opens up about the importance of music in unifying people to create social change.

Baez strapped on a borrowed guitar. Her voice, an increasingly fragile instrument, felt tight from jet lag, she told me later. In the minutes before going onstage, she had tried loosening the voice and practicing on the unfamiliar guitar, but she wasn’t satisfied. Masking her doubts behind a bright smile, she announced the song. “It’s the story of the day that the president came to try and console people,” she said. “The words were not enough. So he sang instead.”

As she fingerpicked the opening lick, I wondered how a simple song could live up to the emotions of the event — grief, loss, hope. Local performers today had brought their beats and loops, their soundtracks and videos. And here was Baez with only a guitar. She sang a little huskily at first:

A young man came to a house of prayer
They did not ask what brought him there
He was not friend, he was not kin
But they opened the door and let him in

Many in the crowd were standing, staring intently as they took in the words. After three verses came the chorus, the voice strong now:

But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The president sang ‘Amazing Grace’
The president sang ‘Amazing Grace’

Joan Baez backstage by her dressing room.


When she finished, the crowd whooped and cheered. “It really touched my heart,” said Roberta Williams, 60, a substance-abuse specialist. “It was just that effect it had — the performance, the atmosphere, the cause.” Williams was accompanied by her daughter, Kris Bennett, 24; the mother had been stunned to learn that the millennial knew who Joan Baez was.

Bennett, who works at Z93 Jamz radio in Charleston and hosts a YouTube series on local hip-hop, told me she started following Baez on Instagram when she noticed the singer being tagged in videos posted by younger activists since President Trump was elected. She sees in Baez an elder who, in contrast to some, “is like, I understand you guys, I’m willing to help.” Of Baez’s performance that day, she said: “The song was really appropriate for everything that’s happening right now. I think we’re at this point where enough is enough, and seeing someone from the civil rights movement, a white woman who actually stands, that’s a big thing.” Bennett, who is black, added: “White silence is worse than agreeing with it. If you’re not using your platform and your voice to say anything, then you’re not better than the people who are doing horrible things.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

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