Joan Baez, Gandhiji and India

Following Gandhiji’s footsteps

I still recall the rage she was when I was in college. Joan Baez and her melodious ballads are reminiscent of a time when many people sported bell bottoms, peace lockets, long hair, and when freedom from all kinds of bondage was their underlying theme. Baez’s rendition of ‘Diamonds and Rust’ still mesmerizes me, so do a number of her other hits. It was simply put in today’s parlance, cool. Like many others, I too sported what one would call as an outlandish appearance with long hair complete with a peace patch on my jeans, with no real idea as to what it was all about. A few of us used to listen to her soulful music and enjoy some of her greatest hits (My friend Madan had an enviable number of Baez’s LP records), but only recently did I glean that Baez had a considerable Indian influence, primarily Gandhian and that, as days went by, she had immersed herself in Gandhi’s methods, writings, and teachings, quoting them often and implementing them in her own life.

While many Indians grew up with Gandhian thought, many neither understanding it nor agreeing with his methods, most accepted his life and times as a period of change. It was a period when India became independent, a direct result of Gandhiji’s unique and bewildering tool, namely, non-violent satyagraha. In fact; the many who connect Dharna with Gandhi are surely among the many who do not know that it was also an ancient practice followed commonly in India and recorded by travelers to India, thousands of years ago. The word dharna comes from the Sanskrit root dhri, to hold, and means squatting or holding out. Dharna was always a form of non-violent sit-in protest (used mainly in the past to collect debts) while satyagraha is holding on to the truth. These got intermixed and became commonplace after independence and are so often misused together with bandhs, hartals, and Gheraos, so much so that most of us are fed up with these concepts these days. But this is not about all that to be specific, it is about Joan Baez and Gandhian thought. As I wrote this, I recalled our old pal Sunjay Dutt (Lage Raho Munna Bhai) and the concept Gandhigiri and smiled.

I did not quite understand pacifism and activism as a college student, but it was Joan Baez’s voice that held us captive, be it her evocative song ‘Bangladesh’, ‘We shall overcome’ or ‘Forever Young’. Perhaps a little background on this great folk singer would introduce her to those still uninitiated to her kind of music, very different from the types in vogue these days. Born into a family that embraced Quakerism, she was quite committed to Pacifism and many other social issues, civil rights, etc. in the world of the 60’s and 70’s and spent her younger days in San Francisco. As she progressed into music performances that took listeners by storm, a music critic R Shelton aptly wrote - That superb soprano voice, as lustrous and rich as old gold, flowed purely all evening with a wondrous ease. Her singing (unwound) like a spool of satin.

In the mid 60’s she introduced Bob Dylan to music lovers while her own special vocal style and activism engulfed popular music. As time went by, one could see her singing and marching along for human rights and peace. Later, in the 70’s as Bangladesh faced atrocities, she released the ‘Song of Bangladesh’. Vietnam protests, Live aid, she was involved in all of them, and she would often talk about Martin Luther King who was her friend in the 60’s. If you recall her song ‘We shall overcome’, you will get right there, to the days when she sang it often. Though many linger on the relationship she had with the mercurial singer Bob Dylan, and later a short one with Apple’s Steve Jobs, her songs live on, in the minds of serious listeners who look for meaning in the lyrics, intent in her prose, and power in her words. But then again, how did India have any connection to her? You will if you search come across mentions of her father Albert as well as comments on the family having spent some time living in India. Albert Baez, her father, a great physicist, was incidentally from Puebla in Mexico, and well, I guess you may remember that fascinating connection Puebla has with India, the story of Meera Poblana which I had written many years ago. Meera (La China) Poblana, revered in Peubla is considered to have arrived from India, as a Portuguese slave.

I started this study when I saw a review of Baez’s autobiography “and a voice to sing with” where the reviewer Lynn Van Matre wrote - The singer`s half-Mexican heritage frequently set her apart during a childhood spent mostly in California (a year spent in India, where her scientist father had taken a job with UNESCO, helped instill in her a passion for social justice). Did it leave an impact? Where did she live? There was a mention of Albert Baez and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, so did she live in Bangalore? All these were questions I wanted answers to, but I was going to be disappointed in that specific search, though it eventually led to the fact that Baez was influenced a lot by Gandhiji and his concept of nonviolence.

Let’s follow Albert Baez a bit and check out the Indian angle. Alberto Vinicio Baez was a pioneer in the field of international science education. His research in the physics of light led to the development of an X-ray microscope and imaging optics. In 1948, working with his advisor, Stanford professor Paul Kirkpatrick, Baez developed the first X-ray reflection microscope, which could examine living cells. In 1951 he accepted a UNESCO appointment at the University of Baghdad in Iraq where he helped establish a physics laboratory. For a few years, the family lived in Iraq and then Albert continued on with teaching and working for UNESCO. In 1985 he organized a major conference on Science and Technology Education and Future Human Needs in Bangalore, which focused on human-environmental interactions. That and correspondence with an Indian leader was quite the connection Albert Baez had with India, from what I could unearth.

Hmm, a dead-end! So, nothing to establish that Joan Baez had lived in India, but I saw that she had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. The details came from a fascinating work “In the footsteps of Gandhi” – by Catherine Ingram, where she interviewed among other activists, Joan Baez. Joan explains that her social awakening was actually in Baghdad where she saw for the first-time - beggars and many forms of cruelty. Returning to Palo Alto, she found that the Mexicans in her class ostracized her for not speaking Spanish, while the whites shunned her for being Mexican. Well, she decided to focus on music and when it became known that she possessed an astounding voice, all the unpleasantness eventually got silenced.

The next phase of her awakening was when she listened to a speech by Martin Luther King at Palo Alto, as she was in high school, a speech that covered nonviolence, social injustice, and suffering. If you recall, King himself was influenced a lot by Gandhiji and his nonviolent ideology. Some years ago, I had covered that as well as his visit to Kerala, in a short article. 

But it was Ira Sandperl, erudite on the subject of Gandhi, who taught her what Gandhiji’s thoughts were all about and then became Baez’s mentor for many years. In the 60’s she got involved with the King protests and was arrested together with Sandperl, for their anti-draft movement. Later protesting the Vietnam War, she decided to withhold 60% of her income taxes (as they would have gone to the armament industry) from the IRS and got into serious trouble when the tax authorities attached her house and started to confiscate money from her concert box offices. Later in 1965, she and Sandperl founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, donating proceeds from her royalties and concert incomes to this society. After some jail time, she married the activist, David Harris. A visit to war-torn Hanoi in the middle of the Vietnam war was next and in 1979 she formed her own organization, Humanitas international.

Baez lists some of Gandhiji’s ideals which made her admire him – His intense involvement with humankind, his beliefs that no one had a right to take another man’s life, his adherence to truth, and also that ideology that nonviolence affirmed that it is not OK to kill, all ideals which eventually influenced her a lot. I also felt she had studied Gandhi in some detail when she said (in a Friends Journal interview in 1969) “Dr. King wanted black people to go to Congress and ask for favors. How different Gandhi was! He would meditate and then decide to go to the sea and make salt. By the time he had got to the sea, the whole situation in India had changed. This is the alternative to violence.” 

But the reader must note here that Baez was quite pragmatic as well about all this, she certainly looked at the flip side – stating once ‘a friend of mine once pointed out, it took millions of dollars to keep Gandhi in poverty’ and making it clear ‘I am not blind to the practical shortcomings of Gandhian resistance, nonviolent warfare was only invented 60 years ago, regular warfare has a 6,000-year start.’

Her fascinating interview with Catherine Ingram gives you a window into her soul when she says – Maybe I wouldn’t be a nonviolent advocate if it hadn’t been for Gandhi, because up until then it really was dreams and talk. What Gandhi said was “let’s take this extraordinary idea and organize it. It hadn’t been organized on a massive scale yet, he proved that a moral argument is really enough… As a tactic, nonviolence will wear you out if you don’t really have a moral and spiritual foundation to it. It will wear out when you want to do something a little bit flashy or expedient. 

Continuing on, she adds – When somebody said to Gandhi – Would nonviolence have worked against Hitler? Gandhi said ‘Of course, but there would have been monumental losses. Yet there were anyway. People don’t consider that a problem, because that is war!! And comparing soldiers she mentions – Gandhi talks of meditation being as important to the nonviolent soldier as drill practice is to a conventional soldier.

But it is when she says – We have thousands of years of practice with organized violence, so we just assume it works, that you start to think, how right it is! And when she addsone must accept nonviolence as a form of fighting, and that is very hard for people to understand, and that compassion and joy can be as contagious as war fever, that the ideology sinks in.

Being a good communicator like Gandhi, is not for everybody and perhaps Baez too had difficulties, once after a particularly difficult concert trip to Israel, Yesh Gvul leader Peretz Kidron concluded “The normal reaction of Israelis is that it might work in India or Louisiana, but it won’t work here!”

Baez was quite practical when it comes to accepting that living like Gandhiji, forsaking all luxuries is incredibly hard and that non-attachment is easier said than done but agrees that one should seek god in the eyes of the poor. Not quite something I have understood yet, but perhaps she figured it all out!

She would often quote Gandhiji, and one of her favorites was "Nonviolence is nothing more than organized love." Or the classic 'In order for this to be a real revolution, we must free ourselves from being at the receiving end of the guns and free the British from being at the other end of the guns”. In fact, she even tried introducing the concept to kids, while doing a voice over for The Muppet show.

Most admirable was her understanding of the two stalwarts Gandhiji and ML King - There’s a trick in getting to the point where you not only do the thing that’s sacred to you and important for the world, but somehow making it public and able to grow into a movement. That was a trick of Gandhi and King and others. They had an innate sense for how to get that done. That’s a gift that’s rare, and we need that. Everything begins small. When they say, “Oh you’re just preaching to the choir.” I say, “Well, the choir is what gets things done!” I would rather sing to the choir than to sing to a bunch of morons who are really never going to change their minds. In so many of her public utterances and interviews, you will find her mentioning Gandhi and how much she has taken it all to heart. Joan emphatically stated once that the spirit of Gandhi ruled her life.

Indira Gandhi did correspond with Albert Baez during 1981-83 on natural conservation matters and they worked together when Indira became the honorary chairman of the IUCN, a department which Albert Baez headed. But I guess Joan Baez did not quite share the good vibes her father had with Indira.

Questioning how Indira even got the Gandhi surname, she sang Ain't gonna let Indira Gandhi Turn me around - Turn me around, turn me around, Ain't gonna let Indira Gandhi (how'd she get that name?) 'round, Keep on a walking, keep on a talking, Gonna build a brand new world. Was it due to the 75-77 emergency?  But well, believe it or not, the stentorian Indira thought a lot about her and listened to Joan Baez’s music often!

Baez used to dress like a peacenik for a long time, wearing even Indian tops at times, and once said - Maybe you have to dress a different way. I mean, Gandhi was a stickler about it. He told the Indians – he embarrassed the Indian congress by standing up and saying that Indians have to stop spitting on the ground. Half the people got up and walked out, ’cause they didn’t want to admit that Indians spit on the floor, you know, and made it dirty and made people sick. And he said they had to have their clothes spotlessly clean or they shouldn’t be riding first class.

Baez sketched well and had made a painting of Gandhi, not in his conventional pose, but clad in a suit. She explains “I titled the portrait ‘Gandhi as a young Englishman’ because that’s what he wanted to be,” she says. “You can see it in his outfit and his top hat and his schooling. If you’re a Gandhi person, you probably won’t recognize him. I love that about this portrait. I like to do that in my paintings.”

Her song about Bangladesh - ‘Bangladesh, Bangladesh, When the sun sinks in the west, Die a million people of the Bangladesh’ was written and sung in 1971 and has powerful lyrics. It was part of the 1971 Bangladesh concert organized by George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar and became the anthem of the pro-Bangladeshi activists all over the Western world.

Baez was quite emphatic about her convictions on Gandhiji, and I read once about how she had a quarrel with the singer Leonard Cohen over the issue of Gandhiji chewing rauwolfia (Various positions – Ira Nadel, Cohen interviews - Jeff Burger). Cohen was equating the nonviolence movement to an army of people high on valium, under the consideration that rauwolfia is a component of some popular tranquilizers. Baez took offense and refused to accept it. I was also somewhat surprised at this for I had gleaned that Gandhiji shunned anything stimulating, even coffee. But some research led to medical articles explaining that Gandhiji was hypertensive and did take a few drops of the herbal medication now and then. He took a few drops of an ayurvedic extract of Sarpagandha (Chandrika) leaves, for his severe hypertension, amongst other therapies, an aspect which of course got blown up.

Interesting is how Baez connected music to Gandhi and peace. John Dear the peace activist explains that Joan learned from Pete Seeger and the writings of Gandhi on how to apply her abilities for social change by demonstrating that every peace and justice movement needed many creative outlets-- music, painting, poetry, drama, film, and literature, to help uphold the vision of a new world without war, poverty or nuclear weapons, following the maxim "Full effort is full victory”. 

And she called for Gandhi when the situation looked bleak - In the 1997 song Christmas in Washington, she sang - To listen to the radio, You'd think that all was well, But you and me and most folks know, It's going straight to hell - So come back Mahatma Gandhi, And rise up, old Joe Hill, The barricades are coming down, And they cannot shake our will!

Some leading writers made an error by connecting Joan Baez to a fascinating conversation which goes thus between father and a daughter - the daughter, aged 11, asked her father if Gandhi had a vagina. When he tells her no, that he had a penis, she goes, “I know that but I thought he may have had both, since he was so nice." Baez in those quotes is either the girl’s mother or the girl herself asking her father, the question. In reality, Baez never had a daughter.  This conversation took place between the Gandhian Ira Sandperl and his daughter Nicole, an event explained in detail in Baez’s first autobiography - Daybreak.

After decades of shunning politicians, Baez endorsed Barack Obama for very many good qualities she found in him, but also because of Gandhi - stating, “Any guy running for President who has a picture of Mahatma Gandhi up in his office is going to intrigue me.” Later on, she endorsed another politician I admired, Bernie Sanders. Ever the underdog, Bernie once tweeted Gandhi’s quote - "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

But with all this said, I am still not sure if Baez ever wanted to visit India or see the land her mentor Gandhi lived in and fought for. It is a bit strange, really, perhaps she wanted the land and its people to remain as she had pictured it in her mind and not be disappointed for any reason. 

Ah! Time to wind up I guess, there are so few of these real people left in this world, and when I see meaningless acts like the Capitol riots which occurred a few weeks ago, I wonder where we are all headed. Then again, everything has to change and until then, we have Joan Baez and her lovely version of Dylan’s ballad ‘Forever Young’….


Daybreak – Joan Baez

And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir – Joan Baez

In the footsteps of Gandhi – Catherine Ingram

My favorite Baez quote - I've never had a humble opinion. If you've got an opinion, why be humble about it?

A selection of her songs

We shall overcome  

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around 

Diamonds and Rust 

Forever Young

Song of Bangladesh 

pics - Wikimedia