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Joan Baez Willingly Tarnishes Folk Crown In New Doc, “I Am A Noise”

-by Denise Sullivan

By now you’ve seen the viral video of Justin Jones singing “Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” with Joan Baez in the Nashville airport. If not, have a look (click image-- it's live):

It’s the kind of image and moment we’ve come to know and love her for, and as she reports it Jones was equally excited about the chance meeting.

“He said, my grandmother would kill me if I didn’t sing with Joan Baez,” said the singer last week in San Francisco. Baez was addressing a full house at the Castro Theater following a screening of I Am A Noise, a fairly stunning documentary about her life, given it’s filled with some mighty unusual, previously unheard and unseen personal material. So why so much revelation and why now?

“I have nothing to hide and nothing to lose,” said Baez. “And I want to leave an honest legacy.”

Directed by three women— Karen O’Connor, Maeve O’Boyle and Miri Navasky— Baez joked, “there should’ve been four,” for all the work it took to pull the strands of her life literally out of storage and weave her archives into something whole. As it happened, the singer kept assiduous records, from letters and tapes to drawings and photographs. But beyond the gorgeous voice, the image of the guitar-strumming queen of the folk scene, and non-violent, civil rights and anti-war activism, there was darkness and unease-- and it permeated everything. The film takes on Baez’s family drama, her personal struggle with anxiety and addiction and a bit of her music, specifically her thoughts on retiring (she played her farewell shows in 2019).

Upon viewing the film Baez said she felt, “Terribly sad.” Though when asked what gives her hope she answered, “Not a whole fucking lot,” though offered some advice and some light in the dark.

“Social change can’t happen on a large scale unless people take a risk. The two Justins took a risk. Fauci took a risk. Go out and make some good trouble.”

Maybe you remember but I’d forgotten that among her talents, Baez raps: “Time Rag” is from her 1977 album, “Blowin’ Away,” which she admits has the “worst ugliest record cover, not just in my career but in a lot of people’s careers.” There were reasons for that, but you’ll have to wait to see I Am A Noise to learn what they were.

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