Joan Baez at NYU in Prague

Making a guest appearance at a New York University in Prague 'Modern Dissent' class, the American folk singer talks protest and meditation

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

Stillness falls over the Masaryk classroom, stirred only by the sound of deep breathing and the faint clang of a hammer out the window, which now seems miles away.

Joan Baez's voice rings out into the calm, "Just focus on the air in your chest and every distraction will go away." She opens her eyes and smiles. "For those who practice meditation – there's nothing you can do to get them derailed."

After a 50-year-long career as a singer and justice activist, American folk artist Joan Baez knows that sometimes a meditation break is just what a person needs -- even if it comes in the middle of a talk that you're giving to a group of 20-somethings in Prague. Invited by friend and NYU professor Jan Urban for some "storytelling" to his Modern Dissent class April 5, she capitalized on a lull in her own conversation to lead 20 students in a moment of self-reflection.

Baez, in Prague to finish a European tour, requested to speak to the class about what it means to be a dissident according to Urban, who had discussed her in his lectures on the movement to free Czechoslovakia from Communist rule. Baez led an enormously successful concert-turned-anti-Communist rally in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia, in June 1989.

After playing several songs, to the horror of the concert organizers and secret police present in the audience, Baez dedicated the song Farewell Angelina to dissident leader Václav Havel and the Charter 77 human rights group that was persecuted by the Communist regime. She then invited dissident singer-songwriter Ivan Hoffman to the stage, he sang a few lines of an anti-Communist song, and then the secret police cut the whole audio system.

Havel, who became Czechoslovakia's first post-Communist president, named the concert as one of the pivotal moments for the cause of Charter 77 in a 1990 interview.

"When I talk about the high spots of my life, Bratislava usually comes up," Baez says with a smile.

Urban, a leader of the dissident movement, remembers the event as well and because of it considers Baez one of his personal heroes. "She did not need to do that, being famous and old enough not to care," he said of Baez, then 48 years old. "Showing young people in the concerts that barriers could be broken was a constant source of hope."

Even today, 18 years after that evening, Joan Baez is still inspiring potential young dissidents with hope.

"We are currently at a time where it's very difficult to feel like you've done something instead of just shouted down an empty well," she said of those who would try to change the world. "I would encourage you to do it anyway."

Baez referred to the 1960s in the US as the "perfect storm" where politics and culture collided to make a huge and successful dissident movement possible. That environment does not exist today, but there were still lots of opportunities to counter injustice, she observed.

Kat Bache, a junior in Urban's class who has respected Baez as an artist and dissident since childhood and attended her concert in Prague earlier in the week was particularly motivated. "I liked the encouragement that she gave," Bache said, "how even between movements, we're still building something. It makes me feel like anything I do will be worthwhile eventually."

The best advice Baez said she could give was to encourage a commitment to nonviolence, and the bravery to act against injustice, no matter how unlikely it may seem. "If you have two friends at school who think the same way you do, get with them and find a fourth," she said.

Emily Claypool, a second-year student at NYU, had never heard of Baez before Urban played Slovak TV footage of the 1989 Bratislava concert in class the day before the singer's guest appearance.

Claypool has no plans to take part in an act of civil disobedience but she was still inspired by Baez. "I don't know that I have the kind of passion that she does, but if I did, knowing that it is possible to enact change if you gang up with like-minded people is a good starting point, I think," Claypool said.

Baez kept her promise of storytelling, peppering advice with tales of taking her dissidence on the road with her guitar as a "knee-jerk reaction to go wherever we were called."

Baez is famous in the US for her 1970s songs Diamonds & Rust and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, as well as moving renditions of Blowing in the Wind and We Shall Overcome.

She was a key figure opposing the Vietnam War and an earlier advocate of the Civil Rights movement. She has also campaigned for peace in the Middle East.

Today, at 66 years old she says finally she "is learning how to be part of a family" -- involved in the life of her son and mother -- after a long period when public causes took up much of her energy.

Her most recent demonstration was in summer 2005 when she and other protesters against the war in Iraq camped out at the Crawford, Texas ranch of President George W. Bush.

The two qualities she said were most important in her years accompanying leaders ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dali Lama to Bob Dylan and Bono, are a spirit for mischief and a sense of humor.

With a smile, she began to walk out the door, stopping at everyone who was in reach for a picture or a handshake, but in most cases a warm hug.

Kristina Grbic, a second-year NYU student, is one of several students not enrolled in Urban's class who woke up for the 9am seminar to meet Baez. "I mediated with Joan Baez and then she hugged me," she said. "My mom is going to flip out."

April Antonellis is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and art history. She is from South Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Video on YouTube

Related articles

  • The Prague Orgy - a new Czech film in English in Czech cinemas by Michal Kráčmer


  • Festival 4+4 Days in Motion by Eliška Míkovcová (4+4 Festival)

    Festival 4+4 Days in Motion to start in Desfours Palace, this year’s slogan is Nobody Has Anything

  • Lunchmeat Festival 2019—Dark Stars on the Horizon by Tony Ozuna - (Photo Lunchmeat Festival)

    Lunchmeat Festival returns to Prague at the end of September as the leading arena for cutting-edge electronic music and with more audio-visual punch than ever before. Their new motto is a challenge to the mainstream: “obsessed with audio-visual mindf**cks— & those who question the status quo.”

  • The Best European Locations For Hen & Stag Do's by Lucy Stevens

    Alpha Travel Insurance have ranked Europe's top Stag and Hen do destinations and indexed them based on factors including the cost of flights and hotel, the cost of a pint and the number of bars and activities available to find out which city comes out on top.

  • Circus and Theatre Festival Letní Letná Kicks off Next Week by Paul Lysek

    The "Leave the Crowd Speachless" Summer Circus Festival is back for its 16th Season at Letna.

  • Events for the week of August 19 - 23 by Narmin Ismiyeva

    We've highlighted five events for this week including The Great Beauty, Latino Anděl and Festival of Illustration.

  • Events for the weekend 17 - 18 August by Narmin Ismiyeva

    Are you making plans for the weekend? We've highlighted six events including the 1981 Secondhand Festival, beer tasting in the Botanical Garden, Etnopicnic and a lesson of Argentine tango atop Lucerna. 

  • Events for the weekend 3 - 4 August by Narmin Ismiyeva

    Are you making plans for the weekend? We've selected six events including the Czech version of the famous South Asian festival of love and colors that will take place on Střelecký Island on Saturday.

  • Events for the week 29 July - 2 August by Narmin Ismiyeva

    Are you in Prague this week looking for things to do? We have one event for each day, including yoga in Stromovka and screening of Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel in Karlín.

  • New exhibition opens at National Library of Technology by Narmin Ismiyeva

    The National Library of Technology in Dejvice (NTK) is especially popular among students, however, anyone can have access to its study areas. Go explore the unique space and the art exhibition it is currently presenting.

Facebook comments

KUKBURG - Farm to table

Our meat and products straight to your table

T.G.I. Friday's (Příkopy)

A true legend in the restaurant industry - TGI Friday's

The James Joyce Irish Pub

Best Irish Pub in Prague

Norbert’s donuts

Superb Donuts in the heart of Prague

Charles Bridge Museum

Discover the history of Prague’s famous Charles Bridge

Trabant Museum Prague

Trabant Museum @ STK Motol

Army Museum Žižkov

Armádní muzeum Žižkov

National Memorial to the...

Národní památník hrdinů heydrichiády

Prague’s # 1 source for Czech news in English…

Expat and Czech Business Professional Network


German Language Info Service