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Joan Baez, 82, on Repairing Her Mental Health: ‘I Don’t Have Those Demons Now’

The folk singer and activist shares personal details of her life in new documentary ‘I Am a Noise’

spinner image joan baez playing the acoustic guitar onstage at the eighth annual acoustic 4 a cure benefit concert at the fillmore in san francisco
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Joan Baez has been in the public eye as an activist and folk singer for more than 60 years and yet has managed to keep significant aspects of her life private — at least, until now.

In Joan Baez I Am a Noise, a new documentary in theaters Oct. 6, the icon discusses the mental and physical pain she endured for most of her life. She also shares personal and often painful details about her relationship with Bob Dylan, her marriage to journalist and antiwar activist David Harris, and the guilt she felt about her self-perceived failings as a mother to her son, Gabriel.

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In addition, we hear accounts — from a collection of interviews and audio recordings, some of which occurred at family therapy sessions — of secrets and accusations that rocked Baez and her entire family.

We chatted with Baez about making her private life public, her conflicted feelings about the trappings of fame, and how social activism today compares with what she experienced in the ’60s.

In the documentary, you talk openly about some things you haven’t talked about much before. What made you comfortable enough to do it now?

A number of things. The first thing that comes to my mind is that my family was all gone. There wouldn’t be contested or hurt feelings or anything. And then Karen O’Connor, one of the directors, has been a friend of mine for decades. I knew her to be a really first-class filmmaker. We talked about this on and off for a long time. And then years go by, and I think, How am I going to leave an honest legacy for whoever’s interested? We started off as a film about the last tour — not even knowing whether it was for sure the last tour — but then I gave the directors the key to my storage unit. In the film, when I walk in there, it is the first time I’d ever walked in, so I didn’t have any idea the extent of what was in there. [The documentary relies heavily on journals, drawings and audio recordings Baez and her family members had saved for decades, and in a scene near the end of the film, she enters a storage unit containing stacks of boxes and cabinets filled with these records and looks through some of the contents.]

It really is an amazing archive of not just your whole life but your whole family. And what a treasure to have. I wondered if it was also a bittersweet experience because some things are hard to revisit.

I would say the hardest has been dealing with my son’s abandonment, basically. And I knew about it [but] I didn’t know it was that deep, you know? Some of that stuff is painful. It’s painful to watch. And yet, my mother kept all those letters and all those tapes of me talking to them from the train. It’s crazy. But it turned out that instead of me [in the current day] talking about what it was like meeting Martin Luther King, it is me at age 21 talking about my life then.

Was there anything that was left out that you wish you could have added?

Oh, Jesus, there was tons of stuff. There’s a beautiful place, a castle in France that we went and filmed in. It’s been a big part of my life. It’s an 800-year-old castle and the count who comes with it. I really wanted that in there. But there’s not room. Karen calls it an embarrassment of riches. There was too much stuff to choose from.

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spinner image joan baez standing outside with clouds in the background
Albert Baez/Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

You became famous at a pretty young age and were conflicted about it, because you felt guilty for having privileges that some people didn’t. I’m wondering if you ever reached the point where you became comfortable with that position?

You know, I have to laugh, because when I was a certain age — gosh, I had to be in my 30s, I think — I decided no more limousines for me. I’m going back to the earth, I’m not going to do this anymore. And then somebody picked me up at the airport in a broken-down Volkswagen bus. And I said, ‘Give me my limousine back.’

Throughout the documentary, you talk about how you were plagued by anxiety and depression and darkness, for pretty much your life. But at the end, you say “the demons still come but are not as bad as they used to be.” Do you have a theory as to what changed or what finally brought you more light instead of darkness?

spinner image folk singer joan baez smiling for a portrait
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

First of all, I don’t think the ending in the film really, really shows the amount of peace that I came to. I’m not sure why. But all of that came through deep therapy. I put off deep therapy for half a lifetime. And clearly figured out why: It was too scary to deal with. But no, I don’t have those demons now. Occasionally there’s a little pop-up, but basically, no. Therapy is hard work and it’s a lot of emotional excavation. 

And an investment. It also came in increments. I mean, being relieved of some of the symptoms started early on. It just took a lot of work, but I got progressively less screwed up as we went along. If somebody [asked] what am I proudest of, I would say getting through that tunnel. It was pretty dark when I entered it, and I entered it on faith. And then by the end I was really back in the light — or in the light, in a way, for the first time.

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spinner image joan baez at the alabama state capitol in 1965 with police officers standing on the steps behind her
Joan Baez at the Alabama State Capitol in 1965.
Stephen Sonnerstein/Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

How do you think that activism — we see a lot of your history with that in the documentary — is different today from when you started out in the ’60s? Or is it any different?

I think the feelings are as strong. I’m not marching in the streets. I did this documentary, which pretty much explains a lot about my life, and about history — the history of my life and of the civil rights movement. And then I started painting and, sure enough, I ended up painting people who had made social change through nonviolence. Then I did a book of upside-down drawings and when I look at it, it’s as much political as whimsical, so that just keeps it as a driving force.

We just recently marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, which you participated in, where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And 55 or so years later, our country had the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. Have we come as far as you thought we would by this point, or not as far as you would have hoped?

As you’re talking, I keep picturing the pendulum swinging. And then I see a wrecking ball. I think we got hit by the wrecking ball, just when we thought the pendulum was gonna be in a good place. We couldn’t have imagined this scenario back then. I didn’t ever think that “we shall overcome” meant in my lifetime. I was smart enough for that, even at an early age. But I didn’t know that this country would be zooming toward fascism at this rate of speed.

In some ways, it seems like we’ve come so far and in other ways we’ve gone backward or in the wrong direction.

spinner image joan baez holds hands with writer james baldwin and leader james forman during a civil rights march in alabama
Joan Baez alongside writer James Baldwin (left) and civil rights leader James Forman (middle) during a civil rights march in Alabama.
Matt Heron/Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Yeah, both. One thing that’s always important to me is not to take away the victories that happened back then, just karmically. It has to affect whatever comes next — whether that’s really bad stuff, or whether we get a break and have some of the really beautiful stuff in our lives again — that those people being beaten up at a lunch counter will always count for something. We’ll always have even if it’s just in our psyche or our mind that we went through this period of spiritual, politically intelligent, nonviolent movement. And who knows, we might have time to do another one. And we might not — I mean, global warming is moving in on us way faster than anybody wants to admit. And I’m gloomy about it. Don’t invite me to a party. If I open my mouth and say anything, it brings everybody down. At the same time, I think we need a certain amount of denial every day.

What’s your reaction to [Rolling Stone magazine cofounder] Jann Wenner’s comments about how, in his opinion, women artists and singers weren’t interesting or articulate enough for him to interview or give much attention to?

I’ll be really articulate. He’s a schmuck.

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