How I Found My Voice as a Pacifist
IN FOCUS, 5 Mar 2018
Joan Baez, 77, is a folk singer and guitarist who received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Her latest album is “Whistle Down the Wind” (Razor & Tie). She spoke with Marc Myers.
3 March 2018 – When I was 9, my father faced a moral dilemma. After getting his Ph.D. in physics, he took a job at Cornell University on a project to improve the bulletproof windows of fighter jets. But in the late 1940s, he wasn’t comfortable working for the defense industry, given the horrors of the atomic bomb.
My father, Albert, was struggling with his conscience and needed spiritual guidance.
We became Quakers. My parents decided rather than get rich in the defense industry, my father would become a professor. By then, we were pacifists.
I was born in New York and was two when we moved from Brooklyn to California so my father could study for his Ph.D. at Stanford. Our house was tiny and beautiful. It was white, with a pointed roof and an arched entrance.
When my Aunt Tia left her husband, she moved to Stanford with her two children. My parents and Tia bought a large house on Glenwood Avenue. It was Victorian and looked haunted.
I shared a bedroom with my older sister, Pauline, who wasn’t happy to have me. She was neat and tidy and precise. I was less so.
To help pay the rent, my parents and Tia took in boarders, up to five at a time. My mother cooked Sunday dinner, and everyone ate at the same table. I was exposed to people with different backgrounds.
After my father’s crisis of conscience at Cornell, we moved back to California, where he became a professor of physics at the University of Redlands.
That was in 1950. Around this time, I began experiencing bouts of melancholy. My mother, Joan, always said I looked as if I carried the world on my shoulders.
Our home in Redlands was a lower middle-class house, but there was something sweet about it. It was white, with a lawn in front that my mother lined with roses. We had a porch where I loved to sit and watch the world go by. By then, I shared a room with my younger sister, Mimi.
While in Redlands, my father took a year’s leave to work with Unesco at the University of Baghdad in Iraq. He took us with him. The poverty and desperation for food were shocking.
Back in school in Redlands, I suddenly was Mexican. My father had come to the States from Mexico with his family in 1915. In 1936, he married my mother, who was born in Scotland. Because my name was Baez and I looked Mexican, I was placed in classes for underperforming kids.
When I was 13, one of our assignments was to write our life history in a page. In my notebook, I wrote, “If there’s an underdog, I’m always for the underdog.”
In junior high school, I sang in the choir. But I had a problem. My voice was as straight as an arrow. I needed a vibrato for warmth. One day, in the bathroom, I wiggled the flesh around my Adam’s apple. As I sang, a vibrato emerged. That exercise taught me what my voice had to do.
In 1958, we moved to the Boston area when my father took a position at MIT. When I attended Boston University in the fall, I started singing for money. The guitar was never out of my hands. I sang around town and developed a following.
One day in early 1959, I was performing at a coffee shop in Cambridge when manager Albert Grossman saw me. He had me appear in Chicago, where I met folk singer Bob Gibson, who invited me to the first Newport Folk Festival that summer. We sang two songs together. My career took off.
Today, I live in Woodside, Calif., in a house built in the 1930s. I was captivated by the land and the oak trees. I’ve since renovated to put in larger windows to let in more light. They also let me see the forest and greenery from every room.
My favorite space is the living room, by the fireplace. It’s warm and serene, and covered in adobe tiles made by an artist friend of mine when he was in his 90s. I practice there when I’m not on tour.
Perhaps my most beloved possession is a framed note on the wall that my father wrote to me in his 90s. He didn’t communicate well with his kids. In the note, he wrote, “Dearest Joanie, I love it when you visit me. From your Papa, with love.” It pleases me that he finally wrote me something nice.
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