For the last six decades, Joan Baez has picked up her guitar, opened her mouth, and let that stunning, crystal-clear soprano devastate our souls, singing centuries-old folk songs and modern protest songs with equal parts passion and commitment. She’s unleashed that once-in-a-generation voice at innumerable benefits, marches, and protests, fighting for racial equality and LGBT rights, against the death penalty and the Vietnam War, and in service of any cause she found worthy. Her best-known songs are interpretations of timeless gospel songs like “We Shall Overcome” and you-are-there snapshots like “Birmingham Sunday,” written by her brother-in-law Richard Farina about the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of an Alabama church in 1963 that killed four young girls.
And carrying along in that proud tradition of traditional folk music, Baez recently recorded a song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” a stunning tune written by Zoe Mulford. In just over three minutes, Mulford’s song recounts the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the stunning moment at the funeral of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people killed at the church, when President Barack Obama led the mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” at TD Arena in downtown Charleston.
“In Charleston in the month of June/ The mourners gathered in a room,” Baez sings, her voice still powerful, if a little lower than it used to be. “The President came to speak some words/ And the cameras rolled and the nation heard/ But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang ‘Amazing Grace.'”
When the song was first released in 2016, Baez says she was struck by both its immediacy and honesty. “The trick with music being as important as it is, particularly in terms of social change, is that it’s emotional,” she says. “It pulls something out of people that they might not have been able to get in touch with. And that’s certainly what happened with me; I heard this extraordinary short song which said everything in a couple of verses, and I was just terribly moved and appreciative of the writing.”
Baez will perform that song when she is in Charleston Sat. June 23 to take part in the Emanuel 9 Rally For Unity in Marion Square. The rally was created to mark the third anniversary of the shooting, to serve as a celebration of the lives of the nine people who were murdered on that day, and as a call for an end to gun violence.
The performance comes in the midst of Baez’s farewell tour. Despite winding down her live performing career, Baez says that she felt compelled to appear for several reasons. “It kind of brings everything together for me in my lifetime of civil rights work and human rights work,” she says. “This is an area of the United States that I spent a lot of time in during the civil rights movement, trying to do my share. The other part of the answer is that we’re in a siege of gun violence right now, which is the only thing you can expect in a gun culture. So, it was important for me to do it one way or another. Any acts like this that are empathetic and compassionate have become really vital. It’s just a thrill for me to be a part of it.”
As of this writing, there have been at least two school shootings in the last couple of weeks, which is not lost on Baez as she prepares for this event. But rather than surrendering to sadness in the face of these senseless tragedies, she sees hope in the work of people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida who became gun control advocates after 17 people were killed by a former student there on Feb. 14 of this year. “Credit goes to the students in Florida, who have really begun what could be a major movement,” she says. “They’ve already accomplished more than anyone else has in relation to the NRA.”
When asked if she sees a connection between the work of these students and the protests that she witnessed in the 1960s, Baez says she actually didn’t see this new movement coming. “It took me by surprise,” she says. “I was among the people who thought, ‘Oh, this generation doesn’t do anything but hang around with their iPads,’ but these kids came out of nowhere. They’re bright, they’re compassionate, they know what they want, and they’re willing to take risks, which is the key in any serious social change. I think these kids have a chance; I think they’ve picked something that they’re passionate about, and it is attainable.”
In fact, Baez has been so inspired by the new spirit of activism in these students that she’s begun including a song in her set that she hadn’t performed in decades. “After 30 years of not singing it, I’m now singing [Bob Dylan’s 1964 protest song] ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ again,” she says. “I’ve been motivated to sing that song because of those kids, because they’re changing the times. They give the young people, and me, a feeling that we haven’t had for about 40 years, that we are a movement.”