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Joan Baez Does One for the Innocence Project

Oct. 18, 2016
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Photo by Joseph Sinnot

Joan Baez has always involved herself with social causes throughout her life, from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War to human rights and poverty. Even after decades of activism, though, the legendary folk singer is still finding new causes to align herself with. For her latest run of tour dates, Baez will be advocating for the Innocence Project and the Innocence Network, organizations that use DNA and pro bono legal and investigative services to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and reform the system to prevent further injustice.

It all started when Baez, an avid painter, received a book with photos of people that had been unfairly incarcerated. “I was painting in my little studio and I mostly do portraits,” Baez says. “Somebody sent me the book The Innocents, which has all these faces on the cover of exonerated prisoners. I picked one and started painting it. I started reading and it’s sort of up my alley, especially now with what we’re going through in the States. It couldn’t be more relevant.”

At each venue, volunteers from Innocence Network organizations will inform concertgoers about efforts to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and to reform the system to prevent these incidents from happening. It’s work Baez is very impressed by.

“From what I understand, they do it not unlike how Amnesty International used to do things,” she said. “Which is, you pick somebody that’s local or near you and work on that particular case.

And that gives somebody a feeling of closeness. So I’m very much looking forward to that.”

Having celebrated her 75th birthday on Jan. 9 of this year, Baez released the double-CD Joan Baez 75th Birthday Celebration in June, a concert album recorded at New York’s Beacon Theatre, featuring numerous famous guests including Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, David Crosby, Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne and the Indigo Girls. The concert took months to pull together. 

“I had a list a mile long and my manager and I worked together picking people,” Baez explained. “Then you have to find out who’s available and who isn’t and you don’t want to ask too many people. I’m in and out of my own self-hypnosis for days, so by the time I get to the stage, I don’t know which me is going out there. But then it makes it fun. I’ve done all the work. A lot of times, songs are obvious, like Paul Simon and ‘The Boxer.’ I asked him if he wanted to try something different and he said, ‘No. Too much work.’ And that’s how I feel about it. I don’t want to take on something new, so you take on a lot of chestnuts, but that’s what people want to hear anyway.” 

Baez, who was raised as a Quaker with beliefs of pacifism, dates her earliest act of protest to the age of 15, when she protested the post-apocalyptic 1959 sci-fi film, On the Beach, with her father, Albert, and being a conscientious objector in refusing to leave her high school during an air-raid drill. And while the late Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and decades-long friend Harry Belafonte were her early social justice influences, the landscape has changed considerably despite issues like climate change, the corporate prison system and racial injustice still being primary concerns.

“There’s a notion about how social change won’t come without people being willing to take a risk. Seeing that kind of activity on the line, you don’t find too much of that [nowadays],” she said. “And maybe the songs that are being written, we’re just not hearing because we don’t have a platform. In the 1960s, they passed over from being counter-cultural to being the culture. That 10-year period is just not going to be repeated.”
Joan Baez plays the Pabst Theater on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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