Joan Baez: Nonviolence, Folk Music, and Spirituality
A Random Chapter in the History of Nonviolence
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Sunday, 23 February 2003

After my last column for this site, which traced the peace efforts of scientists Linus Pauling and Joseph Rotblat, a number of friends suggested (or was it demanded?) that I follow this up by highlighting the "right-brain" connections of creativity and the arts to nonviolent struggles for justice. Fine. I had no problem with that. But I am too ignorant of the visual arts to write such a column without more research time than I can now spare. ("I know what I like," is the extent of my visual art appreciation at this time.) So, how about music? The roles that music has played in justice struggles is well known. I have sometimes shown the PBS documentary on the history of "We Shall Overcome" to students in classes on religion and social justice. James Cone's The Spirituals and the Blues is one of my favorite briefer works in theology. Well, then I would write a column on a musician whose life and work is grounded in spiritual discipline and reflects commitments to nonviolent struggles for social justice.

But whom should I profile in a first column on such matters? Bono of U-2? Bruce Cockburn? (I could hear my pastor, Rev. Cindy Weber, voting for Bruce.) John Denver? (My mind heard a "YES!" from Roger Thomas, a musical friend who divides his time between teaching social studies to Middle Schoolers and being the Youth Minister at our church.) My wife, Kate, would probably nominate contemporary Country music artist Martina McBride. I thought of paying tribute to the late Waylon Jennings (and I heard mental cheers from my friend David Fillingim, a Christian ethicist who teaches religion courses at Shorter College in Rome, GA -- and whose other life is as a country guitar player and scholar of the history and spirituality(ies) of Country music). Other voices in my head urged me to profile Tracy Chapman or Holly Near, Pete Seeger or Woodie Guthrie, Noel Paul Stuckey, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the SNCC Singers, Indigo Girls, and many others. Since this is a column that primarily deals with Christian practitioners of nonviolence, I considered the lives of several troubadours I know who are both deeply Christian, extremely talented, and deeply committed to nonviolence: Ken Medema (whom I know slightly), Darrell Addams, and the duo Down to Earth whose "secret identities" are the wife and husband team of Kate Sanders and Paul Whitely, Jr. and who lead the music at our church among their many other passionate commitments. But, in the end, I had to go (this time, at least) with the incredible Joan Baez, folk singer and nonviolent activist for two generations.

But this is a column on nonviolence and peacemaking, not a fanzine nor a gossip column. If you are looking for confirmation or denial of the longstanding question as to whether or not Joan and Bob Dylan were ever lovers, look elsewhere. Nor am I particularly interested in exploring the reasons for Joan's 1971 divorce from David Harris, a peace activist who served a prison term for draft resistance and who is the father of Joan's only child, Gabriel Earl Harris. Likewise, Joan's music is explored as it relates to her commitment to nonviolence but is not subjected to any personal review or critique on my part.

Joan Chandos Baez was born 9 January 1941 in Staten Island, New York, the middle daughter of Albert Vinicio Baez and Joan Bridge Baez. Her mother is Scots and her father a naturalized citizen of Mexican origin. This mixed heritage made Joan sensitive to the evils of racism and prejudice all of her life. As a child, she experienced initial rejection from Mexican-American playmates because she didn't speak Spanish and from white schoolchildren because of her "Spanish-sounding" name and dark eyes and complexion. Her mother was the daughter of an Anglican priest and her father's family also contained Protestant ministers. Her father was a nuclear physicist and her mother was a homemaker educated in the classics. This context gave Joan fertile ground in which to grow: a family rooted in faith, but a type of faith not focused on memorization of narrow dogmas nor on legalist mores, but fostering a spirituality of freedom, rational inquiry, artistic expression, and compassion toward others. Joan's family gradually became interested in the Quakers of the unprogrammed and liberal strands of Friends tradition. This led her father to refuse an invitation to work on the "Manhattan Project" to build an atomic bomb at Los Alamos labs in California. That had a profound influence on Joan.

In 1951, when she was ten years old, Joan's father accepted a one year teaching post at the University of Baghdad in Iraq. Her experience living in Iraq, meeting Muslims, seeing the hardships of life there prior to the years of oil wealth, experiencing Eastern rite Christianity in one of the oldest cities on earth, all gave Joan a sense of solidarity with people beyond the borders of nation-states. At the end of the year, the family moves to California where Joan experienced racist discrimination in schools -- not winning acceptance until her musical talents were discovered by her friends.

In 1956, at age 15, Joan heard a lecture by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who speaks on racial justice, civil rights, and nonviolence. Joan was thrilled. Her Quaker upbringing had taught her about pacifism and nonviolence, but it was King's quotations from Gandhi and his description of the ongoing Montgomery Bus Boycott, that cemented Joan's commitment to nonviolence in both personal lifestyle and political struggle for justice. The same year, she bought her first guitar and began to explore folk music.

The following year, 16 year old Joan Baez commits her first act of civil disobedience: During the Cold War, "civil defense" agencies conducted drills to help keep the population "prepared" to survive a nuclear attack from the USSR. Students were expected to respond to air raid sirens by leaving school and hiding in the family bomb shelter. Joan's family had no shelter and Joan knew from her physicist father that such precautions were completely ineffective against a nuclear first strike. She decided the air-raid drill was a silly waste of time designed to get the populace to go along with Cold War policies. (Does that remind any of you of our current "Homeland Security" Department's color coding combined with warnings too vague to be useful? Wasn't it convenient that the entire nation was put on "Orange Alert" on the eve of UN weapons inspectors' reports to the United Nations and on the eve of planned massive global marches on behalf of peace?) So, Joan refused to leave her classroom at Paulo Alto High School -- for which she was punished. Later that year, she met Ira Sandperl, a Quaker working with the American Friends Service Committee. Sandperl was a scholar of Gandhi's work and became Baez' close friend and one of her strongest political influences.

In 1958, after graduating from Palo Alto High School, Joan recorded a demonstration album, but it was never published because of negative reaction from executives in the recording industry. Late that summer, she moved with her family to Belmont, Massachusetts, on the outskirts of Cambridge where her father accepted a teaching post at M.I.T. Joan registered at the Boston University School of music and became interested in the folk scene she discovered in the coffee houses of the Cambridge area. Her attendance at Boston U. was spotty and she soon quit college to concentrate on her blossoming career as a singer.

By 1962, Joan had become a rising star in folk music (which was beginning to become popular in mainstream culture), had recorded her first two albums (Joan Baez, and Joan Baez, Volume Two) with the Vanguard Recording Society to great success, and had begun a longtime friendship and musical collaboration with fellow folk singer Bob Dylan. She had also become involved with the Civil Rights movement. In 1962, she conducted the first of three concert tours to Southern college campuses, recruiting volunteers for the movement. She violated Southern taboos (and, in some cases, local laws) by insisting on a strict no-discrimination policy for audiences. People were to sit wherever they wished on a first-come, first-served basis. The idea sounds tame, now, but in 1962 this was a radical experience in many places in the South.

By the following year, Joan was a huge commercial success (her live album, Joan Baez in Concert received a Grammy Award nomination, the first of six for her career) and she continued to use her fame to promote nonviolent struggle for social justice. At the time, ABC-TV had a very popular folk music variety show called, "Hootenanny." When ABC executives canceled an appearance on the show by Pete Seeger, and banned him from appearance on any ABC program for his political activism, Joan was furious. She refused her own invitation to appear on "Hootenanny" and led an artist boycott of ABC-TV that led to several corporate sponsors canceling advertisement and, eventually, to ABC's reversal of policy.

In August of 1963, Joan Baez joined other celebrities, labor leaders, and leaders from every Civil Rights organization (plus over 100,000 "ordinary" U.S. citizens) at the Civil Rights march and rally in Washington, D.C. To her surprise, at the last moment she was selected to lead that huge crowd in singing a song that had both folk and Black Gospel roots, "We Shall Overcome." Although versions of it had earlier been used in Southern labor campaigns, by 1963 "We Shall Overcome" had become the unofficial anthem of the Black Freedom Movement. To this day, Baez counts that performance as one of the great moments of her life.

In 1964, Baez began protesting the war in Vietnam -- well before most Americans knew where Vietnam was, never mind that we had troops involved in its internal civil war. With help from her accountant, Baez determined that fully 60% of her income tax is used for military purposes, especially the Vietnam War. She began to practice war-tax resistance, refusing to pay the 60% of her taxes used for military purposes and donating the money to charitable causes. She continued to withhold the military portions of her income tax for the next decade, despite IRS fines, repossessions of her car, and even barged into her concerts, grabbing the "take" from the box office! Baez knew that all this effort cost the government and that it raised public awareness about the Vietnam War. Later in 1964, after performing for President Johnson at the White House, she urged him to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. She also continued her Civil Rights work by appearing at a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. to protest California' "Proposition 14" bill, which would have made segregated housing legal for the first time in California. (The bill was defeated narrowly.)

At the urging of students at the University of California at Berkeley, Joan became involved in the campus Free Speech movement. A dedicated student of Gandhian nonviolence for years by now, Baez was a moderating influence. As students took over Sproul Hall, she urged them to "Have love as you do this thing and it will succeed." In order to avoid the negative publicity of arresting a celebrity as famous as Baez, the Berkeley police waited until she left the building before moving in and arresting 800 students.

In March of 1965, Baez participated in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the climax of the campaign that resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act. In August of that year, Baez participated in a demonstration outside the White House protesting the Vietnam War. In 1965, anti-war protests were growing, but were still relatively small compared to the size they reached in the late '60s and early '70s until the war's end. However, Baez' presence gave added publicity to the demonstration and the media began to notice a growing peace movement, especially among younger people on college and university campuses.

Convinced that she had to do more to spread the ideas and discipline of Gandhian nonviolence, Baez, together with her mentor Ira Sandperl, founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel Valley, California. Area residents were furious, claiming that an onslaught of "hippies and free love subversives" would threaten their property values. The area residents forced the Institute to close for one month, but it re-opened in December without incident. In 1973, the Institute moved to nearby Santa Cruz, California and renamed itself the Resource Center for Nonviolence where it provides support systems for nonviolent movements around the world. Baez continues to serve as an advisor on its Board of Directors.

Baez continued a life of virtually twin careers, becoming ever-more-successful as a folk singer and recording artist while remaining far more active in the peace and civil rights struggles than the average liberal celebrity stopping by for a photo-op. In 1966, she paused in the middle of a European concert tour to lead an Easter-Day peace march in West Germany. Later that year, she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Grenada, Mississippi, protesting the beatings of black school children as schools were de-segregated. When Baez attempted to enroll five black children in a formerly segregated school, she was barred from entering the school. Her presence kept the children from being physically beaten, but the torrent of profane, verbal abuse hurled at the innocent children from the mouths of elementary school teachers, principals, and parents brought her to tears. She huddled the children in her protective arms for over an hour before they could be returned to the protection of their parents. Eventually, it will take the presence of heavily armed federal marshals before the white parents of Grenada allow black children to learn alongside theirs in equal facilities. (Even that did not end the problems. Studies have shown that an entire generation of African-American children were openly abused and humiliated by both peers and school officials, and were discriminated against in grade evaluations. Those pioneer children in school desegregation often were severely traumatized and had psychological scarring for years -- at the hands of teachers white children considered nurturing and caring. Though vastly improved on a nationwide basis, this problem is not yet fully eliminated in 2003!)

In December of 1966, Baez responded to a call from Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers' Union to give a benefit to support the California migrant workers on strike for better pay and working conditions. She participated in a Christmas vigil at San Quentin Penitentiary urging the commutation of death sentences for 64 prisoners.

And so it continued, throughout the following decades. In 1967, Baez married David Harris, a draft resister. With him she had one child, a son named Gabriel Earl Harris (b. 1969). Harris was sentenced to three years in prison for draft resistance in 1969, but was released after 20 months. Unfortunately, the marriage did not survive the strain of isolation and the couple was divorced in 1971. In 1972, Joan volunteered to deliver Christmas letters to U.S. prisoners of war in Hanoi, Vietnam, but while there, the infamous U.S. "Christmas bombings" began and Baez found herself huddling in a bomb shelter with children as her own government violated a cease-fire and bombed the city. The trauma never fully left her. Even years later loud airplane noises could send Baez into tremors.

After the Vietnam War, she later wrote an open letter to the Vietnamese government protesting news of massive human rights organizations. Some Leftists were angry with Baez for this "betrayal," but Baez committed no treason. She was not committed to communism any more than to capitalism; her commitment was to nonviolence, peace, and the human dignity of all people. If these were threatened, no matter by whom, Baez would do all in her power to bring the abuse to light and to end it.

Back in the U.S., she helped to launch the California chapter of Amnesty International, then a fledgling organization for human rights. In 1979, she launched her own human rights organization, Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, whose purpose was take on human rights causes that other organizations, for whatever reason, could not touch. Baez was president of the board for the entire 13 years of the organization's existence. Later decades found her as involved in nonviolent struggles in Central and South America as she previously was in the Southern U.S. and in Vietnam.

Joan Baez has blended her Quaker and Gandhian spirituality (she still meditates in silence for part of each day and often attends First Day meetings and "meetings for clarity"), her incredible musical talent, and her passions for nonviolence and social justice. Often her music is about those causes, but even when not, her work with this form of beauty sustains her and others in the struggles for truth, justice, and peace (elements that Baez finds inseparable). Although she has berated herself in interviews for failing to live as simply as Gandhi, interviewers are usually amazed at the relative simplicity of her home and lifestyle compared to other performers with her income and fame. She would never be profiled by Robin Leech in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Portions of many of her concerts and of her royalties from recordings go to many causes she supports. She seeks to create or support institutions working on projects she does not expect to be finished in her lifetime.

Hers is a life of both dedication and achievement: eight (8) Gold Albums, one (1) Gold Single (The incredibly haunting tune, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), six (6) Grammy nominations and three (3) "BAMMY" (San Francisco Bay Area) Awards. In 1980, two major universities (Antioch University in Ohio and Rutgers University in New Jersey) granted her honorary degrees, Doctorates of Humane Letters, for both her contributions to the arts and her service to humanity. In 1971, she was given a peace award by the Chicago Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace. In 1976, the Catholic Peace Fellowship granted her the Thomas Merton Award. In 1977, the Annual Rock Music Awards gave her their Public Service Award. In 1979, the American Civil Liberties Union honored Baez with the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award. Other honors include the Jefferson Award of the American Institute of Public Service (1980), the Lennon Peace Tribute Award (1982), the ADA Award by Americans for Democratic Action (1982), the Peace Education Award by SANE (Movement for a Sane Nuclear Policy, now merged into Peace Action) (1983), the rank of Chevalier in France's Legion of Honor (1983), the Leadership Award of the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (1989), the Death Penalty Focus Award by the California chapter of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (1992), and the Global Citizenship Award of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (1995). She has also been selected by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation as one of their "peace heroes" in their peace education materials for children and youth. This year, she has become the first woman to receive the Steinbeck Award from the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. The Award goes to artists and humanitarians whose work exhibits the values found in Steinbeck's writings: concern for common people, commitment to the natural environment, and courage to critique the contrasts between the powerful and the poor.

Joan has written two books, both autobiographical, Daybreak (1968) and And a Voice to Sing With (1987), which she surely has with her clear soprano with a three-octave range! A section of her first memoir, Daybreak, a humorous defense of nonviolence from standard criticisms was published as "Three Cheers for Grandma!" in the August 1968 issue of Atlantic Monthly and was reprinted with her permission in the "Other Ways to Respond" section of What Would You Do? [...if a violent person threatened a loved one] by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983; rev. and exp., 1992). When I have used this book in college classes or with church groups, I have found that the Baez selection is nearly always the group favorite and I have shamelessly borrowed from her examples when myself confronted with hostile skeptics about pacifism. In 1998, Baez had an extended interview with Catherine Ingram for her 1990 book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi: Conversations with Spiritual Social Activists (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990).

In addition to the organizations mentioned above, Baez supports the work of several organizations opposing the death penalty, Bread and Roses (an organization, founded by Baez' late sister-in-law, Mimi Farina, to bring free, live entertainment to people confined in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes), Human Rights Watch, Hard Miles Music (an organization connecting music to the struggles of labor unions). Her voice and talent are national treasures and her commitment to nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, rooted in the spirituality of one of the "historic peace churches" (Friends/Quakers) of her study of Gandhi and her experiences in many of the nonviolent movements of the late 20th Century, is an inspiration to others of us attempting to walk the footsteps of Gandhi -- or those of Jesus!

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