Arts·Q with Tom Power

Joan Baez wanted her new documentary to be an honest portrayal of her life 'down to warts and wrinkles'

The folk musician's incredible life is on display in the film Joan Baez I Am a Noise, which follows her career as she became one of the definitive singers of her generation. She joins Q's Tom Power to reflect on her legacy.

In a Q interview, the folk musician and activist also talks about her relationship with Bob Dylan

Head shot of Joan Baez.
Folk singer and activist Joan Baez is the subject of a new documentary, Joan Baez I Am a Noise, which contains a gold mine of archival materials. (Magnolia Pictures)

Originally, Joan Baez I Am a Noise — the new documentary about folk music legend Joan Baez — was supposed to chronicle the 82-year-old's final tour. But when Baez handed the key to her storage unit to director and long-time friend Karen O'Connor, the film became something completely different: a complete biography of Baez's life, from childhood until now, featuring diaries, concert footage, interviews with those closest to her, and even taped therapy sessions.

In an interview with Q's Tom Power, Baez says when she walked into the storage unit for the documentary, it was actually the first time she'd ever been inside of it — and she was stunned by what she found.

"I was as stunned as anybody else to find the extent of what my mom kept," says Baez. "My father was a camera buff and he had an eight-millimetre camera, and he took pictures of us kids from the very beginning. So that was in there. And then the tapes: I remember making tapes in my room, to [send to] my mother and father, from being on the road at age 21, but I had never heard them back."

Baez never wanted the film to be a hagiography. In fact, she was determined for it to be an honest portrayal of her life and career "down to warts and wrinkles." She adds that making this kind of film wouldn't have been possible if her parents and sisters were still alive.

"It would [have been] too hurtful or confusing," she says. "That's one of the reasons we did it now."

That said, there were things in the film that were hard for her to see.

WATCH | Official trailer for Joan Baez I Am a Noise:

"Some things were just too sorrowful to even think about," she tells Power. "My father saying, 'I wish we were closer. I love you. Goodbye, honey.' You know, each time I hear it, it's just heart-wrenching. My son as well — for all the years we've had to make up for it — when he was little, I saw the degree to which he felt that his mother's presence was a non-presence. Those were important things for me to hear."

I'll joke about [Bob Dylan] because he's a nutcase … but I have nothing bad to say.- Joan Baez

I Am a Noise also touches on Baez's struggles with what we now recognize as panic attacks, though they weren't recognized as that in the 1960s. 

"They were, for instance, lying on the floor of the dressing room, shaking," she says. "I'm sick to my stomach and telling somebody, 'Fine, just get me up and kind of push me toward the stage,' because I was too terrified to just get up and walk there. When I got there, it was OK and I would sing." 

Black and white photo of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing together in 1963.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally on Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington D.C. (Getty Images)

Baez was a contemporary of Bob Dylan: the pair came on the scene at roughly the same time, collaborated with each other, and dated for four years in the early 1960s. I Am a Noise looks at this relationship, and while it was sometimes tumultuous, it's one that Baez looks back on fondly. She adds that, for her, Dylan still stands out as an all-time great artist. 

"He was an extraordinary individual … nobody else could give us songs like that," she says. "I'll joke about him because he's a nutcase … but I have nothing bad to say."

When looking back at her life through the context of the film, Baez says the things she's most proud of aren't chart success or her much vaunted activism career, but the relationships she's forged with people, her son first and foremost.

"I'm most proud of the fact that I was able to become friends with my son, and that's because he was willing to go to therapy with me and figure it out," she says. "It's not all the grand stuff. It's family."

The full interview with Joan Baez is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Joan Baez produced by Mitch Pollock.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.