Joan Baez owes her musical snobbery to dear old Mom.
The elder Baez, also named Joan, raised her children to the high standards of the cultural elite.
She appreciated the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, who sang like “he had tears in his voice.” The Lithuanian violinist Jaschi Heifetz couldn’t be topped. And on TV, the BBC’s “Masterpiece Theatre” always won out over anything American. “If it was British, we would leave it on,” Baez said.
Baez’s mother died this past spring at age 100. Her influence was unimaginable, Baez said by phone from her home in California.
“She led me inadvertently by the musical choices she gave me as I was growing up. It was all opera and classical. Folk music didn’t exist until I was in my teens,” she said. “But she loved folk music. She knew it was natural. My mom once said, ‘I can’t stand anybody who’s a phony.’ “
For more than five decades, Baez has performed with the voice of authenticity. She began singing in the coffee houses of Boston and Cambridge in the late 1950s, when she was still a teenager. Now 72, she remains America’s most durable folk singer, and is no less committed today as when she was starting out.
Baez, who performs at the State Theatre in Portland on Wednesday, is a major figure in the modern history of American culture. She was active in the Civil Rights movement, marching with and befriending Martin Luther King Jr. She was key player in the life of American cultural icon Bob Dylan, and briefly dated one of the most influential figures in American business and technology, Steve Jobs.
The Portland show is part of a national spring tour that on many nights has also featured the Indigo Girls. Baez is touring with an old friend, Dirk Powell, who plays many instruments including banjo, mandolin and fiddle, and her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion.
She promises “a very acoustic show. It’s not a big production, but it’s full.”
The shows vary quite a bit from night to night. Baez understands that she has to perform songs that people want to hear — “Diamonds and Rust,” most obviously. But she likes to keep things fresh, and tries to include surprises. On many nights on this tour, she has begun her shows with a newer song, “God is God.”
“You have to deal with the fact that most of the public wants to hear certain songs, and I do a couple of them,” she said. “But I don’t want to become a nostalgia act. Some of them may not be new, but we hopefully breathe some fresh life into them.
“The key is that it barely matters what I am singing as long as it’s fresh. Whether it’s old or new, it has to be fresh.”
Few recording artists in America have enjoyed a greater profile than Baez. A series of records in the early 1960s and timely appearances at the Newport Folk Festival brought her to the center of the roots revival in American.
She introduced audiences to Dylan, promoting his songs on her records and featuring him during her concerts. And, she noted, her mother had a soft spot for Dylan. “They had a great relationship.,” Baez said. “He was always very sweet to her. When I would grumble about him, she would always say, ‘Well he was always very sweet to me.’ “
Especially during her early years, her popularity directly translated into commercial success. Baez had a dozen records in the Billboard Hot 100, and used her success as a platform to promote social causes she believed in. She was outspoken about the Vietnam War and marched for social justice, human rights and peace.
Baez remains socially engaged, although with a much lower public profile. Last year, she contributed vocals for an album that benefitted the Occupy Wall Street movement.
She plays benefits to help victims of wars, and this summer will perform with Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris in San Jose, Calif., to raise money for an organization that fights homelessness.
“The foundation of my beliefs — non-violence and activism — nothing has shifted except the amount of energy I put into it,” she said. “I do a lot of things I can do at home, like recording ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Farsi and sending it to Iran during their attempt at their revolutions.”
She continues to perform and record, and in 2007 was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Lately, Baez has taken up painting — specifically, portrait painting — as an outlet for her creative expression. She has drawn and sketched all her life, but a rough patch a few years ago led her to delve more completely into painting.
“It just sort of presented itself to me — how about this?” she said, describing her interest in painting as “very serious.”
“It doesn’t surprise me, it delights me,” she said. “How many people are this lucky to run into something equally as exciting as folk singing was when I started singing?”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: