Monday, October 08, 2018

"Fare Thee Well," Joan

Thursday night, as the United States Senate was in the final throes of ceding its soul to voices of fear and deceit, Joan Baez walked onto the stage of the Chicago Theatre for the last time, having willed her 77-year-old voice to one final tour across the country and around the world.

This was Chicago's turn for a "Fare Thee Well” concert, and that magical voice pierced the warm rain of the city's night with haunting lyrics and familiar folk tunes lamenting the raspy disharmony of hate and daring to confront it with the perfect pitch of love.

Baez did what she has done throughout her life, and mine. Born during World War II, she grew into one of the country’s most persistent critics of all wars, a passionate pacifist but a forceful, opponent of injustice and violence.

She wrote the songs that were nested in her heart and sang the songs written by her fellow travelers in the protest movement that defined her life. And so the phrases resonate—diamonds and rust, houses adorned with rising suns, hard rains soon to fall, driving old Dixie down, Bobby McGee, Michael rowing his boat ashore, forever young, sweet chariots, amazing grace, and gypsies everywhere.

Joyce and I were there that night, along with our son Jeff and his girlfriend Julie—Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers sharing a journey across this cultural divide. It was a pre-planned but still prescient trip (including the astonishing musical experience that is Hamilton and a raucous improvisational treatment of Shakespeare). We were anticipating the best of America--the mystique of the big city, jazz, dance, the arts in many forms, Uber drivers from Ghana with tales to tell, and hotels overlooking baseball's Wrigley Field but without a game to play.

But alas, the country was in the midst of a protracted and vicious battle over a controversial nominee to the Supreme Court. We needed an escape from what this debate had revealed -- presidential smuggery, congressional cowardice, and a political culture poised to slide into moral bankruptcy. 

President Trump and his beleaguered nominee
for the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court
There was a sense of urgency in the theater. The audience skewed older—silver hair, slower steps, canes, and walkers in abundance, including mine. But there were granddaughters too, accompanied by grandmothers who hope they will one day understand. There were fathers and sons talking about being a man.

| Vol. LXXX No. 21

Perhaps it was predictable that this dark shadow would be cast across our land when Joan Baez was booked for this final appearance in Chicago on this final tour of her career. Every one of us had come to celebrate the contributions of her life and witness and to enjoy the beauty of her music. But from the first song, it was clear that her voice that night was not about past sit-ins or marches on Selma. It was not about past campaigns for human rights or women's rights or voting rights or civil rights of any kind. 

The set of songs she sang, no matter the familiarity of the lyrics, was about present-day injustice, politicians without values, history without context, and a culture that is increasingly coarse and bereft of moral leadership. It was about now, not then. It was about us, not them.

What we got from Joan Baez was not an antidote or a cure. But it was a response, powerfully sung and passionately felt. 

And now she needs to say farewell. How can she go? The hard rain is still coming. Michael's boat is not ashore. There are many more Bobby McGees. There are promises to keep out there blowing in the wind.

But this is one of those promises:

Oh fare thee well, I must be gone
And leave you for a while
Wherever I go, I will return
If I go ten thousand miles
If I go, if I go, if I go ten thousand miles

(Songwriters: David GudeFare Thee Well lyrics © The Bicycle Music Company)

So fare thee well, dear Joan. You have served us well, loved your world, found the light, and given us hope. It is the fulfillment of a life well lived.

By amazing grace you found your way, and by amazing grace you go.