Joan Baez: Striking a Folksy Chord with Iran & Other Causes of the Day

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Image: Stern Grove

We Shall Overcome sung in Farsi? Whatever works!

Adding a verse of the civil rights anthem in Persian roused the throng of Iranian concert goers joining some 10,000 fans blanketing San Francisco’s Stern Grove to hear folk legend, Joan Baez, speak to them. Her appearance was the highlight of the 2009 summer series of free performances at the popular outdoor venue.

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The folk singer’s legendary soprano voice, showing only the slightest hint of rust at age 68, is now reaching Iranian Americans, like Susan Javaheri (below), who spread out blankets early in the morning to save seats for dozens of her friends. They are moved and encouraged by the singer’s  solidarity with citizens protesting the recent elections in their homeland and murder of Neda Soltan, the beautiful artist shot to death by a sniper during the unrest.

“Joan Baez wrote a song about us, about our plight, and she’s going to sing it,” she told me. “We have a green scroll we are having signed which we are going to wave today during the concert, and take with us to hang at the Eiffel Tower.

The scroll is part of a worldwide project of sewing many squares together to form the world’s longest petition scroll. It reads, “Ahmadinejad is not Iran’s President” and the goals, articulated at the scroll website, include sending the final banner to the United Nations and for foreign powers not to recognize him as president.

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As Baez made her dedication to the Iranian cause, audience members held up their banner and moved towards the stage, while others were busy handing out flyers advertising upcoming mega rallies, including one at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza July 25th.

Meantime, the “barefoot Madonna” reached baby boomers with classics, such as Forever Young (which she dedicated to her 96-year-old mother who was in the crowd), Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice and the old folk tune, Silver Dagger.

“In the dagger song, nobody dies, believe it or not,” joked the singer. “I usually have a rule of only singing songs in which somebody dies.”

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A tie-dyed Andy Rod (above) understands the death part of the protest songs. “My brother was a Vietnam vet who died of Agent Orange and my dad fought in the Japanese war,” he told me. “I listened to her music growing up and the stuff she says really touches my heart.”

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She touches my heart as well, reminding me of the days when I played guitar and sang her songs with my own brother who was killed in 1974. The first album my dad ever gave me was a Baez anthology, along with an accompanying book of the guitar music of folk legends (Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell).

You could say Baez is one of the few surviving guitar heroes of my generation, a tenacious and influential voice that has endured long after the passing of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon. She joins contemporary, Neil Young, who has persisted challenging the establishment, as well, with songs like Looking for a Leader during the disastrous Bush administration. “He’s wandering among us and we have to seek him out,” Young composed. “May it’s a woman or black man after all.”

Maybe it is a woman, one with cropped, white-streaked hair and a multicolored scarf billowing in the breeze. Baez sends the message – not too loud but still quite clear – that she is on our side, whatever side that might be: Against global warming; for the rights of farm workers; opposed to genocide anywhere on the globe.

It appears many of the gray-haired, comfort-shoe recipients of the message at Stern Grove were among the restless youth who flocked to protest meccas San Francisco and Berkeley in the 60s seeking social change and an end to the war.

Perhaps in looking for a leader, we should look no further than Baez. She leads us in genuine, tried-and-true hymns that bring us to tears, reminding us of all the good one citizen with a set of pipes and conviction can do. How many leaders do you know who can do that?

Images: Luanne Bradley

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.