Joan Baez reveals what no one knew about her life: ‘It was devastating to share, but now I am at peace’

The veteran singer reveals in a documentary that she was abused by her father, that she started therapy when she was 16 years old, and that she was hooked on anxiolytics. ‘I am over 80 years old and I wanted to leave something truthful,’ she tells EL PAÍS

Joan Baez
Joan Baez, photographed in Los Angeles in 1969.CBS Photo Archive (Getty Images)
Carlos Marcos

Joan Baez claims that she was abused by her father when she was just a child. Joan Baez was called a “stupid Mexican” at school. Joan Baez started going to therapy when she was 16 years old. Joan Baez was hooked on anxiolytics for eight years. Joan Baez was horrified by her relationship with Bob Dylan. Joan Baez’s relationship with her sister Mimi, also a singer, was based on power and jealousy. Joan Baez had a female partner for two years. Joan Baez suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, neuroses and panic attacks for decades.

Joan Baez, 83, smiles when asked why she has decided to share with the world all this information that perhaps not even those closest to her knew about. “You know, I am over 80 years old and I wanted to leave something truthful. I gave the keys to my privacy to Karen [O’Connor, filmmaker] and there was no turning back. If I desperately wanted to change something I had already made the decision and I couldn’t go back,” she tells EL PAÍS by video call from her home in Los Angeles. The singer is talking about the documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, a vibrant journey through her life in which the singer shares all, traveling to the recesses of her soul.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in London, April 1965.Mirrorpix (Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Baez is speaking from the living room of her home, where there are paintings and a fireplace. She wears glasses, has short white hair and has a peaceful countenance. There are moments in which she bursts out laughing and others in which she begins to sing in Spanish, although she does not speak the language. It’s clear that sharing her deepest secrets has lifted a weight from her shoulders. “When the documentary was finished I watched it about 10 times and I didn’t feel anything. Then I realized that I watched it while protecting myself, because there is too much sadness and confession. So one day, I relaxed, cooked some popcorn, and sat down to watch it. It was devastating, but now I am at peace.”

Aside from the raw confessions, the documentary paints a panoramic view of Baez’s gigantic cultural figure, with a career spanning six decades that made her the grande dame of social folk and a leading figure in the counterculture of the 1960s. She was the first to give Bob Dylan a chance. If she hadn’t detected the talent of the Blowin’ In The Wind singer, it is very possible that Dylan would have taken longer to make it big.

“I was at Gerde’s Folk City in New York. Suddenly, this raggedy kid appeared on stage and started spouting his lyrics. I was petrified. His talent intoxicated me like a drug. I would take him to concerts, invite him up and people would boo him. I would say, ‘Please, listen to him.’ It didn’t take long for them to change their minds,” she says.

Dylan and Baez formed a rapturously attractive duo. “He needed a mother, someone to bathe him and sing him songs. And I needed to take care of someone,” she says. Their relationship ended when Dylan, riding high on success, arrived in London in 1965 and she decided to join him. “I think what happened to Bobby when he became famous was that he turned over a new leaf and got away from everybody. It was a very sudden change,” she says in the documentary. “So many drugs and so much virility didn’t suit me. They were in another dimension, I was the folk weirdo that accompanied them. I had no place there. It was horrible.”

Baez became famous overnight. In 1959, at the age of 18, she performed at the Newport Folk Festival. That’s when everything changed. “For whatever reason, I had the right voice at the right time. And that catapulted me into the stratosphere,” she says. Long before, her father, Albert Baez (an important Mexican physicist who co-invented the X-ray microscope), had instilled in Joan and her two sisters a strong social consciousness. “My father took us to many places so that we could see that we were all equal. It made us reflect on the gap between rich and poor.” Her Irish mother was a recalcitrant pacifist. That was the seed of Baez’s social activism. The family of five were Quakers.

Joan Baez
The writer James Baldwin, Joan Baez and the activist James Forman in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

Already very popular, Baez took part in all social protests. The documentary shows images of her in demonstrations alongside Martin Luther King, in protests against the Vietnam War, leading Black children by the hand to school while members of the Ku Klux Klan intimidated them... There are also touching moments, like when segregated, poor Black mothers embrace a young Baez for displaying such courage in their defense.

Meanwhile, the singer was grappling with psychological problems. When a teenage Joan went to see the first psychologist, her parents were warned: “Your daughter is burdened with numerous emotional problems, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority complex. The symptoms could be due to a psychological and emotional disorder.”

“We were all too crazy to talk about mental health,” the artist reflects today. “It was the 1960s, and there was a crazy combination of things happening: Vietnam, the draft, the fight for civil rights… The good thing is that if you were a musician you were busy all day. You didn’t have time for other things.” In I Am a Noise, Baez talks about her “eternal sentence”: “I knew that after having a good time, I was going to break down. And so on in an infinite loop.” Although her condition has improved, she says that it still affects her.

Baez’s welcoming and powerful voice formed the soundtrack of the 1960s marches and demonstrations for civil rights. This soundtrack included traditional songs such as We Shall Overcome, Oh, Freedom and All My Trials, as well as covers of Dylan songs, such as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, When the Ship Comes In and Blowin’ In The Wind. Baez recognizes that activism became an addiction. She felt bad when she had no cause to defend. And then the Vietnam War ended. Freed from that weight, she released a non-political album in 1975, which is considered her best work, Diamonds and Rust. The title track offers a poetic, sometimes cruel, sometimes romantic dissection of her relationship with Dylan.

Baez confesses today that she has made peace with Dylan “spiritually,” since they have not had contact for “decades.” “I’m not upset. I had the best of him. He gave us a lot with his songs. When I felt that the bad had melted away, I wrote him a letter. I told him: ‘Thank you for the 1960s, what songs you wrote. Thank you for our relationship. The only thing I feel now is gratitude,” she says. She is still waiting for a response. She is four months older than him.

When the artist says that she gave the documentary director the keys to her privacy, this can be interpreted literally. In a room in her house, Baez keeps hundreds of mementos, including cassettes with voice recordings of the entire family’s therapy sessions. At age 50, the singer underwent a hypnosis session to save her memories. She did so partly due to her sister Mimi, who revealed to her that she had been abused by their father.

In 1991, Baez wrote a scathing letter to her parents, which she reveals in the documentary: “Dear mom and dad. The time has come to tell you the truth, which I have refused to tell you until now... “ She then accuses her father of having abused her. Albert, her father, defended himself: “There are many cases of psychiatrists who help remind their patients of things that did not happen. It’s called false memory syndrome.” In the documentary, Baez responds: “You’re never completely sure, but that’s the recovery process. You can’t know what exactly happened. But I have half a brain and I know that certain things really happened, others only half, and others are conjectures. But even if 20% was real, it was enough to wreak the havoc it did. I just don’t have proof.”

Joan Baez  y Jimi Hendrix
Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix chat backstage at a concert in New York in 1968 that was held to raise money to help refugees from the Biafran-Nigerian civil war.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Today ‚the artist has a face that projects kindness: she has forgiven her father. “It was difficult and it took me time, but yes, I forgave him. I remember taking him for a walk in a wheelchair when he was over 90 years old [he died in 2007 at the age of 94]. I don’t like musicals, but he does a lot, so I remembered one, stood up in my chair and sang it to him. I said, ‘This is the best I can do right now.’ I have a framed letter from him that he wrote to me at that time, when he was very old. It says: ‘It lifts my spirits when I see you.’ He didn’t say those nice things when he was young, but when he grew up he said them.” Of the five-member family photo (the parents and the three daughters) only she remains.

She responds with humor when asked how she managed to end her eight-year addiction to anxiolytics: “Well, actually the person responsible for me quitting was president Carter. He banned those wonderful pills and I couldn’t get them anywhere anymore, so I gave them up.”

Joan Baez
Joan Baez retired from touring in 2019. Since then she has only been on stage to play one or two songs at benefit concerts. This photo belongs to the last one, last February 26 at Carnegie Hall in New York, for Tibet.Noam Galai (Getty Images for Tibet House US)

Baez, who fought so hard against injustice, today watches the dangerous drift of the world with sadness: “I think no one could have written a better script about the rise of the new fascism. We could never imagine that that idiot Trump, supported by followers who must be even stupider than him, would come to power. I call it an evil avalanche and I try to avoid it by finding my place. One of the main things for me is to be at peace where I live. I am referring to the issue of global warming. I look out the window and see and hear the birds. Oh, two-thirds of the birds are gone. If I let that break my heart, I become paralyzed and can’t go on. So I go out into the field, sit down and try to listen to a single bird. I’m not waiting for the whole choir. It is only one, but very beautiful.”

Baez held her last major tour in 2019, in Spain, ending with a delightful concert where she was accompanied on percussion by her only son, Gabriel Harris, 54, who was born during her marriage to activist David Harris, who died in 2023. “I don’t miss touring. I’ve done a lot and it’s exhausting. Since then I’ve only ever been on stage to play one or two songs. It’s enough.”

She gets up early, makes her bed, works out (she looks very fit), meditates, eats fresh eggs for breakfast from her own chickens, and gets to work on a book of poetry that she will publish soon. And she dances. She loves walking alone in the countryside with her dog. She listens to the Gipsy Kings on her headphones and dances. Until the only songbird appears.

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