The past six decades can be defined not just by the fashion or popular television programs, but also by the prominent human rights efforts. The ’60s saw the American civil rights movement, which inspired UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement that same decade. In the ’70s, Northern Ireland’s Peace People movement gained traction in the fight against war and prejudice. Between the late ’80s and early ’90s, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution dismantled a communist regime.
And, during all of these international events, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Baez used music and political activism to lend the crowds a voice.
Baez is about to wrap up her farewell tour, and with the release of Martin Scorcese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” pseudo-documentary on Netflix, her original music and stylized covers are at the forefront of the news. But it is her character—her passion for social justice and human rights—that have shaped her music the most.
The Soundtrack of Justice
The intersection of music and justice set Baez’s career apart. Take, for instance, her cover of “We Shall Overcome.” While her version is a cover of Pete Seeger’s rendition (which is a rendition of a 1940s gospel piece, which is an updated version of a Charles Albert Tindley hymn), it is Baez’s gut-wrenching live performances at rallies and other civil rights events that made the song an anthem of justice. And it wasn’t just racial relations that Baez tackled with her music; she advocated for gay and migrant rights as well.
Rock and Roll Relief Efforts
Live Aid brought together over 70 musicians in 1985 for one dual-venue benefit concert. Though the two venues were oceans apart, their goal was the same—fundraisers to alleviate the Ethiopian famine. In the Philadelphia venue, it was not The Beach Boys who opened the show, nor was it guitar hero Eric Clapton—it was Baez, with raw performances of “Amazing Grace” and “We Are The World.” Her music, synonymous with human rights and dignity, was just the right fit for Live Aid’s opener.
A Protest World Tour
It seems that wherever injustice touched the world, Baez showed up to take a stand. As the Vietnam War came to a head in the early ’70s, Baez spent the better part of a year establishing Amnesty International in San Francisco.
As the 20th century progressed, Baez continued her international efforts—she marched alongside members of Ireland’s Peace People movement, performed in Velvet Revolution-era Czechoslovakia, and accepted an invite from Refugees International to provide musical respite for survivors of the ongoing war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Beyond the Gold Albums
Baez received numerous awards during her 60 years in the business, not the least of which are her eight gold albums. However, her humanitarian efforts earned her great recognition: she received the American Civil Liberties Union’s Earl Warren Award for her dedication to civil justice, Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award (the organization’s highest honor), and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. There’s even an award named after her—Amnesty International’s Joan Baez Award for Outstanding, Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.
The close-knit nature of her music and justice advocacy have set Baez apart from her fellow musicians and activists for over half a century. Baez’s efforts around the world have made her an international figurehead, the household name of justice and artistry. As she hangs up the microphone and looks to the future, there will surely be a spark in her eye—a continued drive to bring art and salvation to the world’s broken.