Freedom was just another word for nothin’ left to lose on Saturday night at the State Theatre in Ithaca. the crowd was abuzz when a handsome old cowboy took the stage wearing black jeans and a black shirt with a guitar strung ‘round his neck, its silver edges matching his longish hair. he started picking his guitar like he’s done for the past fifty-some years, singing of freedom, faith, beer and yesterdays.
Kris Kristofferson is not only a singer but an icon of American country songwriting who has written hits for everyone from Johnny Cash to the queen of folk, Joan Baez. Baez was his sidekick on Saturday, double-billed as “Baez-Kristofferson: two Legends … one Legendary Night.” the show was sold out with about fifty people trying to scalp tickets outside, a testament to the enduring popularity of these American stars.
The crowd was predominantly mature, inciting a few comments directed towards this author joking that I was the only grandchild in the audience. In fact, Kristofferson, 75, actually grew up with my mom’s older siblings in Saudi Arabia where his father, a former Air Force general, headed up air operations for Aramco, the oil company where my grandfather was president. he went on to study literature and become a Rhodes scholar before joining the US Army in Vietnam. he left the Army in 1965, a decision for which his family never forgave him.
In the late 60s, Kristofferson worked as a commercial helicopter pilot on oil platforms in Louisiana, where he wrote his song “Help me Make it Through the Night,” which he performed on Saturday. the song has been covered by many musicians, from Johnny Cash to Mariah Carey, but Joan Baez made it a hit in 1971. that was also the year she and Kristofferson had an affair, part of the web of romantic ties that connects the two of them to icons such as Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs, lovers of Baez, and Barbra Streisand and Janis Joplin, lovers of Kristofferson.
The best part of Kristofferson’s set was his rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee,” his ballad about a lover’s death. In 1971, the tune was a posthumous #1 Billboard hit as sung by Janis Joplin and released just after her death. Joplin, another legend of the 1960s folk scene, dated Kristofferson until her death. You could hear the whiskey and tobacco in his voice, growling more than singing, as he punctuated the chorus with, “Help me make it through the night, (Janis).” the crowd went wild.
I’d like to note that these guys were big stars in an era when stardom meant something very different than it does now. They were politically active, especially Baez, and stood for authenticity and freedom, whereas today’s hit musicians are typically more concerned with money, stage personas and macho posturing. this distinction was very evident in the performances, which were refreshingly un-produced by today’s standards. Kristofferson acted like what he was – an old guy playing his old hits to old friends, with conviction but without any pomp or pretension. he seemed warm and humble, a guy who’s been around the block, from being a scholar to a Nashville janitor to a songwriting maestro and Golden-Globe winning actor who now has nothing to prove.
Kristofferson trotted out another of his old hits, made popular by Johnny Cash, called “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which may have more aptly described Sunday morning for the Passion Pit-goers than for this crowd, with the funny intro:
“Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.”
There was a light tone surrounding what are essentially sober songs about war, God, loneliness and love lost. the singer-songwriter ended with his recent song, “Please Don’t tell me how the Story Ends,” singing:
“Never’s just the echo of forever
Lonesome as a love that might have been.
Let me go on lovin’ and believin’ ’til it’s over
Please don’t tell me how the story ends.”
Kristofferson was followed by the spritely 70-year-old Baez, who did her own set before they sang together. the Queen of Folk wore jeans and a bright orange fringed scarf over her shoulders. Her first words, as if a mission statement, were the lyrics “I believe in prophecy.”
Baez was certainly a prophet in her day, bearing an anti-war message to her community of fans. but there was something eerie about this evening, about these songs, something urgently poignant and relevant to this gospel. It suggested we take back religion and keep it open and loving, be conscious of our country’s military actions and core values, and don’t give up on love itself even when it’s tinged with tragedy. such messages strike a deep chord with today’s headlines.
In Baez, we hear both inspiration and frustration. In that opening song, “God is God”, she sings:
“Even my money keeps telling me
It’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us.”
Baez proceeded to joke, “At the beginning of my very, very long career I started to sing ballads. and you could say that for a song to qualify for my repertoire somebody has to die in the song. In this song, two people die, so it’s really good.” At another point in the night she broke into a Bob Dylan impression mid-song, going into his voice and posture with an air harmonica. It brought to my mind Lady Gaga’s recent performance as her male alter-ago, Jo Calderone, who has something of early Bob Dylan about him also. Before Gaga, Baez was a public advocate of gay and lesbian rights and also rearranged various lyrics to make the speaker a woman instead of a man. she vocally defended a woman’s right to independence in her spoken asides on Saturday night.
After receiving a declaration of love from a guy in the audience, Baez laughed and said back to the audience, “You know, this is a long standing relationship. It’s the best kind though, I can hardly see you!” Time has also worn on Baez’s voice slightly, diminishing her range on the high end though in the mid-range she is still strong and powerful.
One of the great stories Baez told about her career was that she found a tape recording of a young girl in a Southern church who had re-arranged the old spiritual song “Swing low Sweet Chariot,” which Baez then adopted into her repertoire. that story was a reminder that this music is essentially a hybrid of two previous traditions – black slave songs describing faith and pain and old Irish and English folk hymns, dirges and work songs — filtered through the picking techniques of ragtime, country blues and bluegrass.
This reference to traditional African-American culture is not disconnected from Baez’s political actions. she told another story about the same song, mentioning that she had sung the lullaby to Martin Luther King, Jr. to wake him up from a nap before a rally they hosted together. she said he pretended not to stir but when she finished he yawned, “I hear the sound of an angel. Let’s hear another one, Joan.” Baez was an outspoken member of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s who used her celebrity to highlight the cause.
Baez has not forgotten her political roots, and this year she was the inaugural recipient of the Amnesty International Joan Baez Award, given for “Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.” In addition to several anti-war songs, she dedicated the song, “There but For Fortune” to the Occupy Wall Street movement, calling the protests “very exciting.” Baez sang at least four songs with Christian imagery evoking Jesus’ pacifism and relating it to her own politics. this stands in contrast to the current socio-political climate that places fervent Christianity in line with conservative values, as opposed to the liberal, anti-war message that Baez and her flock interwove with Christian symbols.
For her last song she crooned John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a vision for a better world, during which she made anti-war asides and got the crowd to chant in response. the song that best sums up Baez’s earnest performance was “Suzanne,” with the lines:
“And you want to travel with her,
And you want to travel blind.
And you think you’ll maybe trust her
‘Cause she’s touched your perfect body
The last few songs were sung jointly between Kristofferson and Baez and were more fun than musically sonorous. They sung Baez’s 1971 hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” about the last days of the Confederate army. Going from Civil Rights protests to a song that mourns the confederacy may seem dissonant, but these musical cultures have some funny overlaps, like Baez and Kristofferson themselves, she a folk gospel goddess and he an outlaw country champion. the American pursuit of freedom is what brings the two of them together. their styles converged in their duets of the gorgeous classics “House of the Rising Sun” and “Long Black Veil,” evoking themes of homecoming and beautiful sadness.
A final roaring encore of Kristofferson’s best-known song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” polished off the performance. the concert ended with these two laughing old musicians asserting their undying love of freedom and singing:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free.”