As a pacifist and nonviolent protester, one who took part in the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Joan Baez must be as appalled as anyone at the mob of insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, waved Confederate flags and took selfies. That’s not protest, that’s protest cosplay. Also, even President Nixon had the good grace to leave quietly.
Baez turns 80 on Saturday. We may as well celebrate in this space.
Two November columns of mine that cited the singer’s years in Redlands drew wide interest, prompting more information to come in about that period. I was contemplating whether to write a follow-up column or let it go when I was reminded of her Jan. 9 birthday.
No time like the present. And speaking of presents, I hope she receives a few.
(She’s celebrating Saturday with a virtual reception for a Bay Area art show of her portraits of Anthony Fauci, Kamala Harris, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Greta Thunberg and others.)
Baez isn’t from Redlands — she was born in Staten Island, New York — but she lived here twice during a peripatetic childhood.
Her father, Albert, taught physics at the University of Redlands in the 1950s, interrupted by a year in Iraq to teach on behalf of UNESCO. That meant that Joan attended fifth grade here, and then seventh through 10th grades, before the family moved to Palo Alto.
Albert and his wife, Joan Sr., were both immigrants — he was Mexican, she was English-Scottish — and both were the children of ministers.
In her memoir “And a Voice to Sing With,” Joan wrote that her ethnic background helped make her an outcast at Redlands Junior High: “So there I was, with a Mexican name, skin and hair: the Anglos couldn’t accept me because of all three, and the Mexicans couldn’t accept me because I couldn’t speak Spanish.”
As a Quaker, and as a girl frightened by nuclear proliferation more than by the Soviets, young Joan felt apart from the crowd during the Eisenhower years. Classmates held her “in great disdain,” she wrote, and some parents warned their children against befriending her.
“It was the sense of isolation, of being ‘different,’ that initially led me to develop my voice,” Baez wrote. At Redlands High, the choir accepted what she called her “plain, little girl’s voice” but the glee club rejected her.
Deciding she needed to develop a vibrato for a more mature sound, she practiced in the shower, singing one note while forcing her voice up and down. When that didn’t work, she held a note while pushing her Adam’s apple up and down with a finger, which did the trick. Then she reproduced the effect naturally.
“The time it took to form a shaky but honest vibrato was surprisingly short,” Baez wrote. “By the end of the summer I was a singer.”
This was, it appears, 1955, prior to her sophomore year. Meanwhile, she was learning to play the ukulele from a friend of her father’s, Paul Kirkpatric, and memorizing tunes by ear.
Making her bid for attention and acceptance, she toted her ukulele to school one day and during lunch hour the popular kids asked her to play something.
This turned into a week of lunchtime mini-concerts. She hammed it up singing hits of the day in the styles of Elvis Presley, Della Reese and others. Encouraged to try out for the school talent show, she passed the audition and at the show sang “Earth Angel” and an encore, “Honey Love.”
This was her first public performance, and it took place in Redlands.
“The fact that I didn’t win the prize I’d been expecting dampened that day only a little,” Baez recalled. “For all the anxiety, I knew I’d been really good and that, in some strange way, my peers loved me and were proudly claiming me as one of their own, as someone who truly belonged to Redlands High School.”
This sounds like a young adult novel or a John Hughes movie, and I admit I wonder if she might be exaggerating both her outsider status and her sense of embrace to accentuate the drama. Hey, she was a teenager who became a professional performer. But this might all be true, or at least true from her perspective.
Mary Frances Lenker Petite of Redlands remembers Baez. As youngsters they both performed in the ensemble casts of “The Bluebird of Happiness” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Redlands Bowl in the early 1950s.
And Petite, class of 1966, was a sophomore on Feb. 27, 1964 when Baez, at perhaps the height of her fame, returned to Redlands High for a solo concert in Clock Auditorium.
“The curtain rose to reveal a stool with a glass of water on it; the spotlight came on and Joan walked calmly onto the stage, long shining hair and serene face blending with the simplicity of her voice and dress,” the 1964 Makio yearbook wrote in a full page feature with multiple photos. The audience sat silently, with the only sounds “a guitar, a tapping foot, and the pure, clean tones of Joan’s voice.”
Petite’s father, John E. Lenker, a Redlands Daily Facts reporter, is pictured interviewing Baez afterward. Baez, then 23, had already been on the cover of Time magazine, but she looks as if she could still be in high school.
Adds Petite, in reference to my two November columns: “Thank you for writing about Joan — one of our hometown favorites!”
Happy to do it. And happy birthday, Ms. Baez.
During the chaos on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, comforted at least two female reporters trapped with her in the House Chamber as the mob tried to break in. Sarah D. Wire of the L.A. Times approached Torres and wrote: “She hugged me, asked about my baby and took my photo,” which Torres tweeted to Wire’s paper to let editors know she was safe. Olivia Beavers of Politico tweeted: “A big thanks to Rep. Torres who was comforting those of us who are clearly shaken, saying we’re okay.” Torres, a former police dispatcher, clearly retains her skills at calming people during an emergency.
David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, alarming people. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339 , visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.