Joan Baez
Joan Baez (AP)

HANOI, Vietnam -- At 72, Joan Baez is not short of events to anticipate: She has her mother's 100th birthday party, a tour of Australia and a new passion -- painting -- to explore. But the folk singer and social activist has spent a few days reliving her past, returning to Hanoi in April for the first time since December 1972, when American B-52s were raining bombs on it.

Each night, Baez would scurry to the bunker underneath her government-run hotel, her peace mission to North Viet nam interrupted by the reality of war. With the blast waves making her night dress billow, she would tremble until dawn, sometimes singing, sometimes praying.

"That was my first experience in dealing with my own mortality, which I thought was a terrible cosmic arrangement," Baez said in an recent interview in the same hotel in the Vietnamese capital, taking a break from a painting-in-progress on an easel beside her. "It is OK for everyone else to die, but surely there was another plan for me?" she joked.

The U.S. launched its heaviest bombing raids since World War II against targets in North Vietnam, mostly Hanoi, for 11 days over Christmas in 1972. The campaign came after peace talks in Paris had broken down.


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Baez traveled to Vietnam then with three other Ameri cans to see firsthand the effects of the war and deliver mail to U.S. prisoners being held in Hanoi. Many at home were angry at her trip because they believed it gave support to America's enemy at a time of war. After the war, Baez spoke out against human rights abuses by the Communist government of Vietnam.

Baez stayed this time in the same hotel she and the rest of the peace delegation were put up 40 years ago by the North Vietnamese government. The building is now more luxurious, and goes under a different name, The Metropole Hanoi, but much of it remains the same.

She was quick to visit the re cently unearthed bunker that sits just beyond one of the hotel bars. Soon after descending, she put her hand to the cement wall, closed her eyes and sang out the African-American spiritual, "Oh Free dom," a song she often sang during civil rights rallies in the United States in the 1960s.

On her return from Viet nam in 1973, she released an experimental album, "Where Are You Now, My Son?" The record features taped, spoken-word recordings taken from the bunker and the hotel and the sounds of Hanoi, including air-raid sirens and dropping bombs.

Baez began her musical career in the folk clubs of Cambridge, where in 1961 she met Bob Dylan, who at that time was little known while she was a rising folk star. They had a high-profile romantic and musical relationship for a few years.

Baez has always placed her social activism ahead of her musical career, a commitment in part fostered by parents' conversion to Quakerism when she was a child. A pacifist, she was a leading voice in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protest. She has supported scores of campaigns across the United States dealing with poverty, racism, environmental degradation and the wars in Iraq, as well as oversea causes.

To a question on the limits of her pacifism -- or as she says "the what-if-someone-is-going-to-shoot-your-grandma" scenario -- she replies:

"Anybody who says they would never do this in any situation would probably have to check themselves, but for the way I lived my life and the way I plan to live my life does not include violence," she said. "The longer you practice nonviolence and the meditative qualities of it that you will need, the more likely you are to do something intelligent in any situation."

Baez still tours the globe, but is now slowing down -- just two monthlong tours this year-- one of which includes a stop at Tanglewood on Sunday.

But it's painting now that really fires her. She has been at it for just eight months. The acrylic in the hotel in Hanoi of a young Vietnamese boy against an orange background is her first work that has ever been framed.

"I have literally switched my interest in music to painting, which is convenient because it's been 53 years and it's not that easy to sing now," she said. "People wouldn't know it, but the voice goes down and there is huge pressure to keep it up and it means a lot more vocalizing and a lot more concentration. I'm really ready to move on."

In concert

Who: Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tanglewood, Koussevitzky Music Shed, West Street (Route 183), Lenox

Tickets: $69.50-$23.50 (lawn)

How: (888) 266-1200; tanglewood.org; at main entrance box office