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What fuels the 'manic creativity' of Joan Baez

About seven years ago, Joan Baez — singer, activist, icon — decided she was ready.

“I wanted to do what I called an honest legacy,” she said. “Then I realized that to do that, I had to really give up a lot of control over my personal stuff.”

That meant opening up the meticulously sorted archive of family movies, recordings, photos and journal entries that her mother maintained. In the documentary Joan Baez I Am a Noise, which was released in October, Baez lays eyes on the trove at the same moment as viewers.

“I just kind of gawked at it in astonishment,” Baez, 82, said. Each time she watches the documentary, “there’s something revelatory,” she added. “It’s been a major learning experience for me.” Baez told us about some of the people, places, activities and music that have fueled the “manic creativity” she’s now experiencing.

1. Dancing: I dance in the morning when I get up, on and off through the day, and have a Zoom dance with friends one night a week. We can start at 6 p.m. and quit at 7, instead of starting at 10 and dancing until I drop, which I realize was not that much fun after all, as I am no longer 30 and everything began hurting.

2. Drawing Upside Down: Upside down is far more interesting to me than right side up. Things otherwise not available to my conscious mind become obvious when I turn the drawing right side up and see what it’s telling me. It can take the place of doodling, though not necessarily. Doodling has its place.

3. A Certain Tree: I sleep in my big oak tree most nights in the summer. I have a platform 20 feet up, held in place by ropes and bamboo. There’s a ladderlike stair which is way too steep. Having fallen from it once, I now use a climbing harness to get up and down — so my friends won’t live in a constant state of panic and have to try and hide the panic from me. So I won’t worry that they are worried, and we don’t have to talk about it, and I can just get on with my life. The tree is named Frank. He named himself.

4. Writing Poetry: Since I quit touring four years ago, I have been in a state of manic creativity: portrait painting, drawing, making prayer sticks, making a documentary and last but not least, finishing up a book of poetry which will be released in the spring. It’s called When You See My Mother, Ask Her to Dance. The title poem is a fantasy story of my mother falling in love with a Swedish opera singer, Jussi Bjorling, and him falling for her.

5. Music I Have Listened to Forever: Jussi Bjorling, the sopranos Joan Sutherland and Kathleen Ferrier, the pianists Glenn Gould and Maurizio Pollini, and the violinist Jascha Heifetz are among the classical favorites I listen to. For nonclassical music I depend on the Gipsy Kings; selected country and western music like Lauren Duski and Sturgill Simpson for the voice; Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash for the soul. I like to put Leonard Cohen on Spotify and see which of my friends and colleagues show up in Spotify’s interpretations. And I’ll listen to anything at all by Andrea Bocelli.

6. Collecting Eggs From My Beloved Chickens: A fresh egg is a gift from God. Did you know that when it comes out it’s wet? Like a newborn elephant, or sparrow. Or you, or me.

7. Audiobooks: I am a nonreader and now can depend on audiobooks to both entertain and educate me. My favorite book of the last 10 years is A Gentleman in Moscow, with Bel Canto running a close second. People give me books to read and I just smile blankly and say thank you, and wish I were a reader. I know I’m missing a world of treasures.

8. Making Good Trouble: I know about the pendulum theory — politics swing left to right, imperfect democracy to fascism — but no one could have predicted the current wrecking ball. What to do about it? Keep your head up, or down if you are passing the Proud Boys on the street, and make good trouble wherever and whenever you can.

9. Birdsong: Of all the animals and birds which are now disappearing by the billions, I feel closest to the songbirds. They are, after all, my family. My advice is to listen to one bird sing its glorious song — listen hard and treasure it, and no longer expect a chorus. And then go help someone clean up a river.

10. My Son: He is uniquely funny and can make me laugh as few people can. I’ve given him permission to leave the room when I’m on my deathbed and say, “[Expletive], I wish she’d just get on with it, because she’s driving everybody nuts!” Gabe doesn’t read much either, so he probably won’t see this.

(Published 09 November 2023, 07:35 IST)

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