I once saw a photograph of Joan Baez walking amongst the rubble after a series of bombs fell on Hanoi. It was taken during a trip in December of 1972 where she would be invited as a guest of the Committee of Solidarity with the American People to deliver letters to American POWs. In the photograph, the Galem International Airport had been reduced to ruins. Joan and the two other Americans in the photo, eyes focused on the ground below them, looked tired. This photo, hanging on the wall of my middle school, was my first of many encounters with Joan but, the one that will be ingrained in my mind forever.
During her third night on that visit to Hanoi, in the lobby of their hotel, Joan Baez’s voice would waver and pause under the abrupt sound of sirens. She and others were rushed into a bomb shelter shortly after as a 12-day carpet bombing over the city would begin. One hundred thousand tons of bombs would fall on the Vietnamese in what is now known as the Christmas bombings and during the in-between periods of the attacks, the survivors were left to question the world in which they live.
There were moments between the attacks where the sky would clear so they could come up for air. Joan and other anti-war activists were led around what was left. She recalled hearing the cries of a mother, lifting bricks from an endless pile, looking for her boys. An elderly man searched for a hand to steady himself in the wreckage and found Joan with her own hand held out. To symbolize the loss of a loved one, a white band would be tied around the survivors head. A sea of white bands amidst the dust. At first, they would keep the Americans from the dead until it became too difficult to avoid. On the night before they were to leave for home, the sirens rang out again. Joan Baez would not follow the others into the shelters. Instead, she stood on the balcony overlooking the dead and those left behind to wander the streets, and began to sing.
The hardest people to write about are those you care deepest for. For me, Joan is one of those people. The influence Joan Baez has had on who I have become as a person is profound. There are countless stories I wanted to tell, but I know their meaning would be lost if I tried to find the right words. All I know is I am grateful for all of the times she had let me be a fly on the wall.
I wanted these words to flow as effortlessly as they were lived. From that moment I had first heard Joan Baez reeling in her unrequited love in “Diamonds and Rust,” her presence began to shape the way I would feel and how these feelings would land on paper. I had spent countless mornings in the autumn sun, sipping a coffee, and looking for answers to life in those early albums. Joan Baez had taught me all there was to know in love, sadness, and how to wear these feelings on your sleeve in a fierce act of bravery. However, it was that photograph and that voice over the town of Hanoi, that kept finding it’s way to the surface. It’s something that I needed to get out of me; the part of Joan that I believe is so important for others to see. Because in a world that seems to be constantly at war with itself, it’s hard not to ask the question, “What would Joan do?”
In the papers, media, and our communities, we are divided. We’re screaming for our lives and for the lives of those who have no voice against the ones that scream back. It sounds a lot like bombs dropping. It looks a lot like ashes and a sea of white headbands. It brings me back to that photograph. The ruins of Hanoi in the background. The sounds of air-raids and the tired look on their faces. The sound of Joan singing on that balcony. It makes me question whether or not there are any of us still willing to be this fearless.
Joan Baez was gifted with a voice to sing with and she used it to change the world. Until her dying day she’ll be using her voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Throughout her entire life she has always taken risks, demonstrating resilience time and time again. I think of her each time I feel too small to do this myself. It’s important for us to remember to take chances, to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and to show love in the face of hate; because that is bravery. It is what I admire most about her. It’s her legacy of peace that I hope inspires others so that she will continue to make a difference long after she’s gone. When they think they’ve got you, and you’re afraid to be in this world, get out on your goddamn balcony and sing.