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.

4 responses to “Dazed by Baez”

  1. Nice one Glen,spot on ! Mike PS Go see Room…..

    Professor Mike Campbell OBE Skills and Labour Market Advisor

    Email: profmikec@aol.com

    Tel: +44(0)7557 382128

    Web: professormikecampbell.com

    Twitter: @mikecampbell3


    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Thank you Mike. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the feedback.


  2. shutupandsaysomething Avatar


    I feel compelled to inform you that, as is often the case, you have hit the corroded nail on the head with a well-designed hammer. My only disagreement is a generational one, as she is five years my senior and, therefore, substantially older than are you.

    To her credit, she chose the right side of civil and human rights history in the 1960s and never abandoned those views. However, her personal life choices left her behind, among those in the feminist movement.

    More critically, as you indicate, she was there, but not as a moving force. The pro- civil/human rights and anti-war drivers in the U.S. came from two sources: the religious community – activist priests, nuns, ministers, and lay workers – and academe. I worked with the former, when I organized an A.I. adoption group in late 1976: Joannie was not on anyone’s horizons in these direct efforts. BTW, there are few things cooler than getting a micro-share of a Nobel Peace Prize.

    I was part of the latter through the course of the war, from 1964 through 1973. Joan Baez was beloved by many in my cohort; I preferred – okay, I had an enormous crush on – Judy Collins. However, the Baez name never came up in our conversations about how to respond to the war and why.

    A final, small point: except at Berkeley, Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement was pretty much a bust at the other activist schools. He held a rally on the UM Diag and our general reaction was “What is he talking about?” Censorship of student voices was nonexistent in Ann Arbor. E.g., Tom Hayden was the editor of the school paper, The Michigan Daily, the year before I enrolled.

    Great voice. Good heart. Inflated sense of importance.


    1. A savvy, entertaining and pointed rejoinder. Thanks for the history or, er, her story. Appreciated.


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