Dazed by Baez

Joan Baez – Koerner Hall again, this time advance publicity for a concert she will give there on February 27th – is, if you believe her hype, or her publicists’, ‘a musical force of nature whose influence is incalculable…’

Well, okay, I get that Baez has influenced people, I was there, remember, that’s my generation too, but then (you’ll have to pardon me for such an extensive quote, but that’s part of the point, the fact that the blah goes on and on) we get all this, too – more than a musical force, Baez is pitched to us as a world-historical figure

“…marching on the front line of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, inspiring Vaclav Havel in his fight for a Czech Republic, singing on the first Amnesty International tour and standing alongside Nelson Mandela when the world celebrated his 90th birthday in London’s Hyde Park. She shone a spotlight on the Free Speech Movement, took to the fields with Cezar Chavez, organized resistance to the Vietnam War…” etcetera etcetera. Jeez, man, Baez was everywhere! Leading the whole god-damned thing!

Not to mention the fact that she “introduced Bob Dylan to the world in 1963, beginning a tradition of mutual mentoring that continues to this day.” Must have a word with Bob about that.

Now, I dont doubt that these things are true, in a ’she did this, and then she did that’ kind of way. But it’s the inflation and swollen accumulation of language, the stealthy insinuation and appropriation of history, the attachment of self to historic figures, the ‘noble-by-association’ inferencing, the centre-stage positioning, the self-adulation, that make this gumph the subject of today’s Bad Language posting.

The Havel reference captures it perfectly. There is poor old Vaclav, you imagine, wondering forlornly why things have turned out so badly in the workers’ paradise, was it perhaps a misreading of The Communist Manifesto – in short, without a clue what to do, when suddenly Joan Baez comes on the radio, singing Kumbaya, and Vaclav starts up out of his chair, clutching his forehead. ’That’s it!’ he cries. ‘We have to have a Velvet Revolution! Thank you Joan, everything is clear now! Comrades, we march at midnight!’

Or take that seemingly innocent phrase, ‘organized resistance to the Vietnam War.’ Well, she was an organizer, for sure, one of many, who led and, yes, inspired the anti-Vietnam protests – but look carefully at the words, and look at their context. This is not, one hopes, their intention, at least not directly, but their lazy grandiosity, their careless inflation, permit – deliberately, I’d argue – a perception that actually, it was Baez who organized the anti-War protests. All that’s missing is that little word ‘the.’ Saying that Baez organized the Vietnam War protests, and saying that she was an organizer, are not quite the same thing, but here they are presented in such a way as to imply that they are.

The facts of Baez’s political activism are impressive enough, and worthy of recognition, without this puffery and misappropriation.