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'60s folk madonna is back with new album

It was Wavy Gravy, that chronicler of strange counterculture phenomena, who said the '90s are really just the '60s upside down.

Turns out he may have been right.How else could it be that Joan Baez and Bob Dylan would once again bring out two artistically powerful and critically acclaimed recordings at the same time?

"It's sort of amazing, isn't it?" asks Baez, before breaking into laughter, something she does often during a recent telephone interview from New York, where she was promoting "Gone From Danger." Released in the last weeks of 1997, it is her first album of new material in five years. And by a strange twist of fate it has come out parallel with Dylan's "Time Out of Mind."

"The same year, the same month," she continues in a voice filled with wonder and amusement. "I think it's basically a good thing. Here we are back in force; the old warriors."

Not that Baez is feeling quite like an old warrior, or an old folkie, or even an old fogy these days. She has her own Web page, after all, where she posts poetry that she eventually plans to compile into a book. And she's planning a concert tour that will take her across Europe and the United States.

But, perhaps most important, the woman the '60s children called the Madonna, folk music's original "oh-so-stern Earth mother," says she is learning at last how to have fun.

So when you think of Joan Baez these days, she says, don't think of the sometimes preachy political leftist with the beautiful voice. Think instead of the Joan Baez who likes to horse around with friends and tell jokes - who always liked to tell jokes but often didn't have the nerve.

"I think in the early years I felt it was compulsory to be strident," says Baez, who turned 57 Jan. 9. "I was so afraid that if I wisecracked people wouldn't think I was serious enough. I wish I had understood then about what fun it was to have fun. But I'm perfectly prepared to learn that now."

She's kept that stunningly lovely voice in perfect pitch over the years through constant practice. Indeed, her voice on "Gone From Danger" is no less the equal of "Joan Baez in Concert," recorded for Vanguard 35 years ago. And there is a reason for that, she says.

"I was lucky for about the first 40 years. But then, about 18 years ago, I realized it wasn't going to be a free ride forever, and I started seeing a vocal coach. And that's what it's been: practice, practice, practice. I practice daily or I wouldn't have any kind of a high range left."

On the road, she says, practicing hasn't always come easy.

"I once had a hotel manager ask if there was a cat stuck in something," she says, dissolving into laughter again. "He said the neighbors were worried."

Life wasn't always so entertaining.

Born in New York to Quaker parents and raised mostly in California, she recalls growing up a lonely girl who soothed the emotional pain with music.

"I picked up a ukulele one day and discovered it would be easy for me to play and easy to sing," she says. "It eased the loneliness.

"I never had the slightest designs on being an entertainer," she continues. "I just sang. ... I sang rhythm and blues at first. And pop music. `Earth Angel' was the first song I ever sang in public. Then Harry Belafonte. Then I moved on to Odetta and then all the East Coast folk singers. And then I moved to Cambridge (Mass.) when I was 17, and that was where a lot of the big folk music boom started to happen."

Later, it was on to Greenwich Village, on to musical stardom and a tumultuous romantic relationship with Dylan in the early '60s.

"A couple times, just at folk festivals, we've run into each other in recent years," she says. "We've had a good chuckle talking about the old days."

Her stardom helped propel her to the forefront of the protest movement, and she marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. She did so much of that, she says, that when she decided to get serious about her musical career again in the '80s, "I didn't know what a battle it would be to insist on being more than a '60s legend."

She triumphed, in part, by turning to a new generation of young songwriters. "Gone From Danger" has contributions from such heralded singer-songwriters as Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, among others, and only one contribution from Baez.

She chose the music of others not so much to craft a new image, she says, as to ease out of writing music.

"I'm not trying to be cute here," she says adamantly. "I've written a couple of very good songs in my time. . . . And I've written a lot of very mediocre songs. And it isn't what I really enjoy doing."