Joan Baez in Istanbul

While living in a group house in Washington in the 1990s, commuting by bicycle to the University of Maryland for my graduate studies in mathematics, I joined a discussion group of readers of the Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine. I suppose the group met as frequently as the magazine was published, though it could have been twice a month: I do not clearly recall. Neither do I recall just how I became involved with the group, though it must have been through a professor in my department who was a member.

The group met in Silver Spring, at the house of a psychiatrist. There was a certain age difference between me and the rest of the group. One of them recalled being in the US Navy in World War II. When his ship was near a Soviet ship, he called out to the comrades, “Hey, I’m a Communist too!”

If those sailors had actually been able to understand him, he said, they must have thought him a fool. Days of Party membership were over for him and the other Old Leftists in the Monthly Review group, except for one person: she was active in the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

A couple of years earlier, when I was still in a group house in Maryland, my white American housemate Bill had issues with our Vietnamese housemate Mike. One night Bill could be heard ranting to his girlfriend in the basement about the “fucking foreigners,” who should be “sent to the ovens.” I thought possibly some members of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA might be able talk some sense into him—enough sense of the kind he needed. The Party seemed to admire violent rage, wishing only to direct it at the right targets. Their newspaper once had an article called, “If you’re dissing the sisters, you ain’t fighting the powers.” They might have a similar slogan about international solidarity.

In a later year, when I attended a May Day observance at the Party bookshop in Berkeley, Revolution Books, I heard a guest speaker introduced whose parents had, for some unstated reason, migrated from the workers’ paradise of China to the “hell hole” that was the United States. One could condemn the United States for many things, but making other places like Iraq into hell-holes should probably come before being a hell-hole itself.

Meanwhile, back in Silver Spring, one evening the Monthly Review discussion group had a guest who was a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade. I think he was Saul Wellman, now deceased. He recalled how he had carried a rifle given him by “Comrade Stalin”: Stalin may have been a nasty fellow, but at least he supported the cause. My Trotskyist friend to whom I reported this statement disagreed: Stalin’s support for the Spanish Republic had been a sham. In any case, on a later day, back in our department in College Park, my professor comrade observed the value of my having met the old veteran of the Spanish Civil War: for when I myself was old, I would be able to connect younger people to the glorious old days of international leftist solidarity. I do not know how much sense this made to me at the time; now that I am twenty years older, it makes a little more sense.

Before I came into the world, discounting the worries of my father, my mother attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech. My mother must then have heard Joan Baez sing with Bob Dylan, in performances that are now preserved on Youtube. My mother died in 2013, though not before visiting Ayşe and me in Istanbul, in 2012. Now I have heard Joan Baez sing in Istanbul, on July 1, 2015, beneath a waxing gibbous moon.


Ms Baez sang at the Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Stage (açıkhava sahnesi), about a half hour by foot from our flat. The concert was opened by a man in white playing duduk. The stage lights came on only as he started playing.

Ms Baez came on with an enthusiastic welcome and played solo for a while.


Then her band of two musicians joined her, including her son on drums. She introduced him only as Gabriel Harris. In the Woodstock film, she tells the audience that her then-husband David Harris is fine in prison, and “We’re fine too”—patting the belly where Gabriel is gestating.


Ms Baez sang two songs from Woodstock, and mentioned that she was doing so: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But she sang to instruments, and not quite with that miraculous clear voice with which she called out at Woodstock.

I had read in a Guardian interview from August, 2014, that her voice had started to go, at least in the high notes. But the problem was psychological, not physiological. With some work, she got the high notes back; but not completely, I would say. She can hit them, but not confidently. Looking back at old videos, I seem to see in her face even then the challenge, when she is steeling herself to sing out those shrill tones, as when she sings of seeing “a band of angels coming after me.”

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I’m coming there too.
(Coming for to carry me home)

When she was working with Martin Luther King, he was asleep one day and needed to be awakened, but nobody in the entourage wanted to do it. They sent in Joan to sing him awake. She sang “Swing Low.” King then said he was not awake, but had heard an angel. One might say this was a self-serving story for Ms Baez to tell; but I am glad she told it.

I don’t know how many people in the audience needed it interpreted. Near the beginning, she had asked English speakers to interpret for any non-English-speaking neighbors. She herself sang a song in Turkish, while reading the words off a sheet of paper. The audience cheered and sang along with her: they knew the words.


Then Ms Baez brought out her surprise guests: members of the ensemble Kardeş Türküler. We had heard them perform, the previous September, on the same stage, in a concert called “Barış Zamanı,” Peace Time. They too are familiar with singing words they do not understand: for they are dedicated to singing the music of all of the folks of Anatolia, in the original tongues when possible. Joan Baez belonged with them. One of the singers tied a crimson sash around Ms Baez’s hips, and they danced.


2 Trackbacks

  1. By What It Takes « Polytropy on May 26, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    […] the March on Washington (recalled in “Joan Baez in Istanbul”), Martin Luther King referred to Thomas Jefferson’s presupposition as a creed whose […]

  2. By Cumberland Tour 1994 « Polytropy on May 12, 2022 at 10:04 am

    […] an American supporter of Pat Buchanan, and the other was an immigrant; I talked about event in “Joan Baez in Istanbul.” So I was bicycling to College Park and back, once or twice a week, an hour and a half each way. […]

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