“Gracias a la Vida” is a signature song for Joan Baez. It’s often performed toward the end of her concerts, and with its sing-along chorus, it gives her audiences something to hum on their way home. After all, folk music is by definition communal.
She sings the song in Spanish, and its refrain translates to “Thanks to life, which has given me so much.” Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra, a social activist and a leader of the nueva canción movement, wrote the ode a year before her death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1967. Then and now, many regard the song as an ironic footnote to Parra’s enduring legacy.
That same year, Baez headlined at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, where sang “Gracias a la Vida” and other similar numbers. Just weeks later, she was arrested and jailed (twice) for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, Calif., in a protest against the Vietnam War. Fifty years later, this anthem of hope and despair plays on for Joan Baez.
In “An Evening with Joan Baez,” an SCP Specials concert Oct. 25 at Symphony Center, she can be expected to draw freely from the songbook that has reflected her urgent social interests over the decades. At age 75, she admits the urgency of her activism has faded somewhat. In a February interview with the Guardian newspaper, she said: “I’m relatively out of touch with things now. I’ve been in my studio, painting.”
Her career is a study in contrast to that of her peer and former paramour, Bob Dylan, also 75, who continues to reinvent himself. When he brought his “Never Ending Tour” to the Ravinia Festival this summer, he blended the late-night sounds of Frank Sinatra (“Melancholy Mood” and other standards popularized by Ol’ Blue Eyes) and Cy Coleman (“Why Try to Change Me Now”) with his new songs and some retooled classics, including a rockin’ “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The mix seemed to suit his weathered voice — and life — well.
Baez in 2016 is more likely to blend current acoustic singer-songwriters and folk standards, pretty much as she did in 1963 with her straightforward yet unique readings of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Staying true to form in her recent TV special “Joan Baez: 75th Birthday Celebration,” which was recorded in January at New York’s Beacon Theatre and broadcast nationally on PBS, she went edgy with contemporary alt-country hero Steve Earle and retro with Stephen Foster.
She still possesses a clarion soprano. And she can still strum a guitar. Why change?
Baez once told an interviewer “My dread is for my show to be a nostalgia act.” But she is a folk singer, and nostalgia is a part of folk music.
That’s not to say there are no surprises with Joan Baez. Ahead of her birthday concert’s premiere, PBS posted “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Joan Baez” on its website.
Among the notable items:
* She dated Steve Jobs (who was 14 years her junior) and gave him lessons on his pricey Bösendorfer piano.
* She was only 18 when she first performed at Newport Folk Festival.
* She was visited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while she was jailed for her Oakland protests.
She also agrees with those who say she is a pessimist and recalls her first act of civil disobedience and pacifism: refusing to leave her high school during an air-raid drill.
Today, the foundation of her beliefs still is non-violence. In a time of unceasing violence worldwide, the socially conscious songs of Joan Baez remain the same.
Gracias a la vida, thanks to life — an enduring message of hope from an endearing realist.
Joe Pixler is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
VIDEO: A clip from “Joan Baez: 75th Birthday Celebration”: