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ACTIVIST INTENSIFIES HER FOCUS ON MUSIC

In the 1960s she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights. She told the "Eternal Revenue Service" that she would not pay the 60 percent of her taxes that funded defense spending. She raised money for striking farm workers, spent time in jail for "failure to disperse" and led peace protests in the United States and in Europe.

Through it all, Joan Baez sang the folk songs that made her famous. Traditional ballads gave way to songs opposed to bigotry, racism, violence, whatever she viewed as a societal evil. Her haunting soprano made songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" folk classics.These days, Baez is focusing on other things.

Pre-eminent, she said during a telephone interview, is "my voice. I suddenly realized my vocal chords were terminal and the rest of me wasn't going to terminate as soon as they are. There are a number of ways you can use your time. I choose to focus on my music."

Baez will perform in Abravanel Hall Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. - her first visit to Salt Lake City in five years. Opening for her is musician Danny Peck. Tickets are $14-20 and are available by calling 355-2787 (ARTS).

It's not exactly a change of direction for the fiery Baez. It's more personal than that.

"I'm learning what it means to sit down and be quiet. It took me about half a century to learn that. It's very peaceful around the little farm animals. I sit with them.

"I never slowed down long enough before. But I don't regret much. That's just kind of how it was. I'm glad I'm still young enough to launch into some of the things I missed."

An interview with Baez is full of surprises. Rhythm and blues got her interested in music. Everyone thinks her early influences were Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, but she said she "moved to folk by way of Harry Belafonte. It's curious now, because I thought he was so commercial. First I didn't care, then I did. Now I see that he was always really close to nonviolent thought and actions. It's nice to realize that about my early choices."

Now, 35 years after she debuted as a shy 19-year-old at the Newport Folk Festival, she said the influence of Seeger and Dylan, on both her music and her thought processes, came later.

However, the past is, as they say, prelude. Today, she's interested in the present. She jump-started a somewhat lagging music career as a way to let the creativity out, she said.

"I had never co-written any music. `Play Me Backwards' (released in 1989) was the first time."

The joy of her present, she said, lies in "writing and creating the music itself and finding what I want to say." She revels in the opportunities that her career has given her to sing in many different places, like a recent concert in East Germany. "It's my chance to go places where I've never been. Emotionally, that's very fulfilling for me."

In some ways, though, Baez said, little has changed. "My initial change came in the mid-'60s. Instead of only long, sad love ballads, I started doing contemporary music at the same time - looking more for a theme than a different kind of music."

She's still looking for themes.

"I want a theme to make it make sense to other people and to myself; to make an album worth putting out, not just for myself. On the last one I experimented with rhythm, simplicity and co-writing, and it was quite well received."

What's next? "Another record that will take some concentration. I'm thinking about the possibility of doing songs with young women songwriters. I'd like to spend time with them and write with them."

That's not new for Baez. As Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson have teamed on occasion to form the Highwaymen, Baez is one of the Four Voices, a vocal quartet that includes Mary-Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls.

That collaboration brought Baez a strange realization. She was busy admiring and emulating performers like Belafonte; in turn, she would one day be the role model for other young performers. "I know from working with people like the Indigo Girls and Mary-Chapin that I've influenced them. But you make friends and don't stay in a legendary status. In a way, that's kind of sad."

After 31/2 decades at center stage, eight gold albums and a gold single, after founding organizations like the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and Humanitas International, not to mention dozens of awards from all over the world, of which single accomplishment is she most proud?

Without missing a beat, Baez announced it's the birth and growth of her son, Gabriel, who is now 24. He tours with Joan, who is on the road about three months at a time, playing drums in her show.

He's the most important thing she ever did, she said. Her legacy.