Joan Baez is up there and I'm down here.
Not in the front row, where fans try to hand her compact disks and such to autograph.
I'm not even up there with her symbolically, on that moral plane she inhabits, where notions of truth and justice reside crystal clear and so easy to see.
No, I'm down here in the muddled crowd with all its competing ideologies and attitudes about America's new war, its new trade and immigration policies, its mixed-up economy.
So it always was with me and Joan Baez. She was always "up there." Always a little too noble, a bit too idealistic, a tad pitch-perfect, a wing-beat beyond... beyond.
Way back there in the early seventies when I would listen to 33 r.p.m. records in Fort Sanders student-ghetto apartments, I would wonder if she and other sirens were right about war and race and social injustice. Was it possible to forge a better world? What would the future bring? One of the good things about growing older is that you get to see how things turned out....
So this is how it is, Wednesday night, March 13, 2002 at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville.
Up there on the stage, Joan Baez looks noble yet friendly, with that wedge of silver-gray hair cleaving nicely to slender lines of her face. Her body appears lean and firm, but in spirit she seems more voluptuous, more mellow than when young. She does a little hoe-down dance now and again. She laughs at herself, tells a funny story, an outright joke, does her Dylan impressions, tries out an East Tennessee accent, interacts with her acoustic band, deftly plucks her guitar, cajoles us into singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Above all, she puts her well-honed sense of social justice on display.
Not like in the old days, when she led peace demonstrations and marched on Selma to promote integration of the races.
The most overtly political comment she makes this night--just after she sings an antiwar tune--is, "I was right 40 years ago," leaving us to puzzle out her meaning. I assume she's talking about the Vietnam War, which she opposed early on.
As a dark-haired maiden cradling her guitar, often on TV, she inspired a folk music revival, almost single-handedly saving hundreds of old ballads from extinction. That just might be her greatest contribution (O.K., that and discovering Bob Dylan). At the same time she waged a campaign for social justice and international peace.
On this night, this tour, 40 years later, her mission continues. She sings about child abuse, unfair labor practices, race hatred and a half-dozen antiwar songs. Take "There But for Fortune," a ballad about how any one of us might have been counted among the abused, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. There's a verse about how you or I might have been born in a land where bombs fall from the sky.
Joan Baez has said publicly she's against the bombing in Afghanistan. I would be disappointed if she said anything else. I appreciate her purity of vision, even if I'm not "up there" with her exactly.
You see, I too have problems with this war we're fighting, and I have lots of concerns about how we've turned over the economy, the environment and world trade policies to a cadre of oilmen who weren't popularly elected. I like to think my objections are more nuanced than Joan Baez's, however.
I'm not against the war. I believed early on that the Bush-Cheney team handled the war about right. I believed then and still believe America had a right and an obligation to respond to the destruction of 9-11. In fact, I believed the Taliban should have been driven out of Afghanistan years ago for abuses against their own people, especially women, and for their tolerance of terrorists and destruction of world-class treasures.
On the other hand, I worry about our policy of using one tribe against another in Afghanistan. I worry about weird practices such as targeting and killing tall men in our obsession to get bin Laden. I worry when I hear talk of using nuclear weapons against our new ally, Russia, among others. Most of all, I worry my teenaged sons might one day be forced to fight in some war to keep oil flowing because Bush can't bring himself to tell us, "Turn off the lights when you leave the bathroom." Because he won't tell big automakers to wring better fuel efficiency from the cars they make. Because he's embraced a go it alone policy when it comes to the world's environment and arms control. Still, these are policy issues mostly.
Joan Baez isn't simply crooning about policy with her deceptively dulcet tones. Rather, she's telling us war is wrong, letting Big Money determine foreign policy is wrong, labeling masses of people "deportee" is wrong. I don't always agree, but I'm glad she is saying such things. It gives the rest of us wiggle room.