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Joan Baez: Playing For 'Tomorrow'

"Time flies" is an old adage, but it applies to Joan Baez. Fifty years ago, the singer-songwriter first appeared at Club 47 in Boston. Her sterling voice, the songs she sings and her staunch commitment to society's underdogs have had a profound influence on American culture.

Baez recently spoke to Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about her first studio recording in five years, Day After Tomorrow, and performed songs from the album with guitarist John Doyle at NPR's New York studio.

Dedicating the album to her 95-year-old mother, Baez says that she credits her music and life to her mother's tremendous influence. Even now, Baez says, she draws inspiration from having her mother and family nearby as she grows older.

"Mom just had natural instincts toward nonviolence, toward nature, toward us kids," Baez says. "I get to see her grow old, and I get to hopefully see her die, and that's very important to me. I'm very happy to have her there."

Songs Of Others

Most of the album consists of reworked songs by artists such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Patty Griffin. The lead track, "God Is God," is by revered songwriter Steve Earle, who also produced the record. Baez says that she had difficulty interpreting the song and turned to Earle for advice.

"The song confused me at first, because it's saying, 'God is God, I'm not God, we're not God,'" Baez says. "So I said, 'Well, Steve, what's the deal? I thought we had this sort of thing about we are God and God's within us,' and so on. And he said this is recovery-speak. In recovery-speak, when you say you turn yourself over to your higher power, that's something outside of you. But, in fact, for many people, that is God or their concept of God."

Reinterpreting other musicians' songs is nothing new to Baez, who says she considers herself more an interpreter than a songwriter. Though she started singing at 18 or 19, she says she never wrote her own songs until her late 20s.

"It never dawned on me," Baez says. "All of a sudden, everyone around me was writing songs and somebody said, 'Why don't you write a song?' So I wrote intermittently for a long, long time. Then, about 10 years ago, I slipped back into interpreting. I don't know whether it was laziness or somebody said something that threw me off. If something bubbles within and comes to the surface and I think it's good, then of course I'll write that song."

Singing For The Underdog

During Baez's long career, the singer has raised her voice in many songs of protest, lost love and lost causes — songs of the underdog and of hope, struggle and social justice. Yet she says she doesn't consider herself a part of the feminist community.

"I never took on either women or brown power or black power or yellow power," Baez says. "I just stuck with people. The other thing is, I think when you're the entertainer, you're treated a different way from the people who are really trying to get ahead in whatever business it is."

Over the years, Baez has also championed young songwriters such as Dar Williams and Eliza Gilkyson, who wrote the song "Rose of Sharon" on Day After Tomorrow. Baez says she was looking for songs that were new but sounded like old English folk songs.

"This album is very much like my roots many years ago," Baez says, "and we look at it like a bookend to the very beginning. It does sound like home."

Looking Back, Looking Forward

In the process of revisiting her older sound, Baez discovered how far she had come since her early days, as well as how much she's grown as an artist.

"I was so young when I started that I had nothing to do but start learning," she says. "When I listen to that voice back there — and I can speak of it like that because it's a gift to me; I did not invent it — and I'm stunned. I suppose I'm like anybody: I changed in little bits and pieces."

Baez now says she has more confidence in her music and performing on stage, but it wasn't always that way. The singer says that, though no one knew, she used to be terrified of performing and doubted her own abilities. Through the help of years of therapy, she says she's finally come into her own. While she'll always be associated with causes, Baez spends more time with her family now — something she wasn't able to do as much in the '60s and '70s.

"I know that some people don't have that image of me, but just being there and getting to know them, it's very important to me," she says. "But at the same time, I know when I walk on the stage, I know I represent history."

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