I am not sure how many of my college-age friends would know who Joan Baez is. I suspect there are not many who do know her. In some ways this is not at all surprising. Joan Baez is now in her mid-70s. For an eighteen-year old that is an ancient woman! But people my generation---near her age and ourselves products of the Vietnam era---Joan Baez is very well known. I have been a fan of hers for decades.
For most of us who came of age during the 1960s, the Vietnam War was a defining moment. And if that were not enough, it was also the time of race riots and the emerging feminist movement. Some very good things came out of those times. We saw some significant civil rights legislature passed. Some major strides were taken by the women of this country. And Joan Baez was right in the middle of all of that. She was an inspirational leader.
I ran into Joan Baez again in a recent article in a Catholic publication I regularly read. It was a great reminder. The article celebrated her appearance back in Washington, DC for some honors and, of course, some music. A picture of Baez accompanied the article and there was that familiar face---but with lovely gray hair. The words and the photo triggered memories.
Joan Baez was born in this country to a man from Mexico. Her grandfather left the Catholic tradition to become a Methodist preacher in New York. Joan’s father worked in health care and for UNESCO, so they moved around the United States and often spent considerable time abroad. In 1958 her father took a position at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Joan’s budding career began in the coffee shops and clubs.
One of the most interesting details for me about Joan Baez is the fact that her parents aligned themselves to the Quaker tradition when Joan was still fairly young. Since she was seen by many as Mexican, Joan was subjected to racist and other kinds of harassments. No doubt, this planted the seeds of her well-known work for peace and social justice. And of course, this fit well with her newfound Quaker faith. I like to call her a sister in the faith. Sadly, I have never met her.
I like to think about her music as her personal ministry. Quakers understand ministry in very broad terms. In fact Quakers would say that every one who comes to be a person of faith is also called to a particular kind of ministry. We understand the meaning of the word, minister, is to serve. Ministry is service to God by serving all of God’s creatures.
There are so many stories, so many songs, so many sit ins---too many to recount. Perhaps I can bring out one song that represents the many concerns of Joan Baez. The song is entitled, “All the Weary Mothers of the Earth,” written in 1971. It is a song of protest and of vision. It sees a time when there will be no more war. It begins with this line: “All the weary mothers of the earth will finally rest…” Another stanza talks about “And the aching workers of the world again shall sing…’we shall no longer be the poor, for no one own us anymore…”
The last stanza is vintage Joan Baez. She sings, “And when the soldiers burn their uniforms in every land…General, when you come for the review, the troops will have forgotten you. And the men and women of the earth shall rest.” I think it is the memory of her own treatment and the knowledge of how so many others have been treated that continues to drive Joan Baez.
I appreciated the Catholic periodical quoting some words from her autobiography, A Voice to Sing With. In that book she recalls moving with her family to Baghdad, Iraq when she was 10. She writes, “Perhaps that was where my passion for social justice was born. The day we landed, in the heat and the strange new smells, we were horrified to see an old beggar being driven out of the airport gates by policeman using sticks and shouting in crude and guttural language. In Baghdad, I saw animals beaten to death, people rooting for food in our family garbage pails, and legless children dragging themselves along the streets on cardboard, covered with flies feasting on open sores, begging for money."
I am thankful to God and to Joan Baez for her work---her ministry, witness and long-time commitment to a kingdom vision. Her work is spiritual in a very deep way. It inspires all of us to keep the faith, as the slogan would have it. In a results-driven world, it is sometimes difficult to keep the faith when we are doing spiritual work.
Often spiritual work has to do with obedience more than performance. That is paradoxical when it comes to Joan Baez, because she is a performer. But she is one who has obediently gone about her life and ministry. I applaud her for that. She is a servant---a servant leader. May each of us follow suit in our own way.