To Ramona: an important song in understanding how Dylan composes, and the question of Joan Baez

By Tony Attwood

To Romana has a very important place in our attempt to understand the way in which Bob Dylan writes some of his songs.  Where there are many commentators who like to see each metaphor, each image and indeed each line carry deeper meanings, reflecting on some particular approach to life that the commentator is seeking to promote, a study of the way in which this song was written, with its borrowed tune and multiple amendments over time, gives a different viewpoint.

What we see here is the use of what some have found to be an old folk tune, which had already been used for a highly successful country (but utterly depressing and fearsome) folk song in the 1930s, which Dylan developed and amended constantly.  Indeed what the scraps and notes collected by Heylin shows is a couple of lines jotted down here and there, gradually evolving into a coherent song.

The point here is that the notes reveal not a clear idea of what the song was about and what direction it should take, but rather a number of different interesting lines and possibilities which gradually coalesce around the lyrical theme and the developing melody.

To return to the issue of the origins of the music, several writers have noted that the melody itself is a traditional piece of Mexican folk music – and while I know something of British folk music, and a smaller amount about the music of the Appalachian mountains this now takes me way beyond all my areas of expertise.  I just have to take other people’s word for it, but if you can find that original piece, or indeed if you know about Mexican folk music and can tell if this melody relates to that music, please do share the information you have.

But it is possible to find versions of Rex Griffin’s song The Last Letter which certainly does have a strong musical resemblance to Ramona.  Apart from the melody is the fact that what we have here is a waltz – it is in three beats in a bar, rather than the normal two.  Dylan used this rarely – Sara is the most obvious other example.  It could also be described as a piece in 6/8, but the original Rex Griffin song is clearly a waltz, so that’s probably what was in Dylan’s mind.)  In terms of the chord sequence and melody Dylan does vary both a little from the original, but not much; what we are getting is G, G6, G7, G, G6, G7, D…

This use of the melody either from a country tragedy song or from Mexico, the use of a chord sequence which Dylan works and reworks through the whole album, hugely re-worked lines as Dylan seeks again and again to find the right phraseology… none of this contradicts nor confirms that the song is sung for Joan Baez, or Nico, who was with Dylan in Greece when he started sketching it.  (The connection with Mexico, and with Dylan’s line about returning “back to the south” is tentative in the extreme.  Joan Baez was born in New York, although her father was Mexican; she is bi-lingual Spanish and English, and Ramona is a Spanish name.   So it is all possible, but in terms of the song I still think this is stretching it).

The notion that Baez is the focus particularly comes from Baez’ autobiography, “And a voice to sing with” where (I have read) Baez mentions that Dylan called her Ramona.  Now I haven’t read the book – I know I should to complete this review, but for the moment there isn’t time.  If you have and can write back and quote a line or two of a relevant section I’d be grateful.  (And I’m holding back here because I have seen it before that a person writes, “In xxx he says that…” when “he” most certainly doesn’t.  The story gets passed on from person to person, so I am cautious).

And even if Dylan did call Baez “Ramona” that is not proof that he is singing about her – after all he might well have started strumming that guitar sequence and enjoyed the half rhyme of “Ramona” and “closer.”

But quite why Dylan would then use a melody of a song about a suicide for a publicly made statement to Joan Baez is really hard to work out.  It is much easier to cope with this if the song is just a song about an imaginary situation – not least because if the song is about Baez, and it was written or at least sketched when Dylan was in Greece with Nico, why is he writing

Ramona, come closer
Shut softly your watery eyes

That is not to say that many songs are not clearly about one person or one idea, but rather to say that in many cases Dylan’s songs are made up of interesting phrases and ideas mixed together as an abstract designed to be tantalisingly close to something we recognise and something coherent throughout, but not quite.

If we just look at the first verse there is no context established, we don’t know what’s going on, there is no background, it is just… there, being played to us

Ramona, come closer
Shut softly your watery eyes
The pangs of your sadness
Will pass as your senses will rise
The flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times
And there’s no use in tryin’
To deal with the dyin’
Though I cannot explain that in lines.
He is saying that the city can be too much and he needs to get away, because staying there is just hopeless.  We suspect he’s gone to the countryside – or in Dylan’s case, Greece.
Your cracked country lips
I still wish to kiss
As to be by the strength of you skin
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I’m in
But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin’ to be a part of
A world that just don’t exist
 It’s all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin’ like this.
What makes this such a memorable piece of music is the manipulation of the words, the way each line projects a meaning that we can grasp partially but not fully.  She’s got its wrong, he’s saying, and he knows, he is right.   That is hardly original, and has been most certainly said by a billion men sitting in the gloom hopelessly.  But here he says it in such a way that the lines get inside us, and work on our imagination.
In many ways this is a “it’s not my fault, it’s not your fault, it’s everyone else that has turned your head’s fault” song, dressed up with an elegance of poetry.  It could be just an attack – this is in fact the opposite side of “When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose”, but ultimately it is still the same notion.  “I want to be with you and your magnetic movements but oh, those people you associate with…  Sorry, I can’t deal with that, so it is farewell.”
And sadly we know he is having Ramona on, because a man truly wanting to be with a woman doesn’t say, “you’re with them, so I can’t be with you, farewell”.  A true friend never gives up trying.
Yes Ramona is trying to be a part of a totally fake reality, but the singer could offer to help her, but he doesn’t.  The only difference is that where as in Rolling Stone Dylan is shouting at the woman, HOW DOES IT FEEL? here he says, “it grieves my heart” to see you like this.
Here Dylan does want to give Ramona compliments…
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
Back to the South
You’ve been fooled into thinking
That the finishin’ end is at hand
Yet there’s no one to beat you
No one to defeat you
‘Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad
She just needs to get herself sorted and get back into the real world.   This isn’t the end.  It might not be the beginning, but it certainly ain’t the end.
The problem Ramona has is the world and the people around her – the fixtures, and forces and friends.   And isn’t that a part of so much of the overall message of Dylan in these early years?  It was a part of the hippie message of the 60s, that one should not let everyone around us tell us what to do, but to be ourselves.   We don’t have to be like everyone else.  We can do our own thing, be our own person.
I’ve heard you say many times
That you’re better ‘n no one
And no one is better ‘n you
If you really believe that
You know you have
Nothing to win and nothing to lose
From fixtures and forces and friends
Your sorrow does stem
That hype you and type you
Making you feel
That you gotta be just like them.
So the message is “be true to yourself”.  And if Dylan left it at that, it would be a nice, enjoyable piece, but perhaps one that we would not pause over too long.  But he doesn’t…   for although he takes an early run at “you go your way and I’ll go mine” – which in essence is fairly heartless, and often an excuse for not being involved, he adds those final two lines about coming crying to you, that either show deep humanity and feeling for Ramona, or else twist the knife even further by offering her false hope.
I’d forever talk to you
But soon my words
They would turn into a meaningless ring
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring
Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do
And someday, maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.

The fact is that everything does pass and change, and ultimately to anyone who seems confused and seems to be too strongly influenced by events and people we might deem to be unsuitable, what we don’t have here is the vigour of “you go your way and I’ll go mine”.

The advice “do what you think you should do” is perfectly sound, because no amount of argument will actually win; in matters of the heart logic never beats emotion.  And it is at the same time flawed, of course, because the singer is just trying to remove himself from the entanglement with Ramona – which is an interesting position to get to as it is the exact opposite of the Last Letter which ends horrifically as we discover the letter is indeed the last letter, as it is a suicide note…

When you are weary and tired of another man’s gold
When you are lonely remember this letter my own
Don’t try to answer me though I’ve suffered anguish untold
If you don’t love me I just wish you would leave me alone.

While I am writing this letter I think of the past
And of the promises that you are breaking so free
But to this world I will soon say my farewell at last
I will be gone when you read this last letter from me.

The man who is saying farewell to Ramona knows he’s hurting Ramona who is crying her eyes out, but he’s trying to excuse himself by saying she’s been listening to those around and about.  “Be yourself”, in such circumstances, is about as futile a piece of advice as there can be, because all Ramona has is the singer, who is rejecting her, and the fixtures and forces and friends that are tangling her up.

In fact, as all mainstream psychology shows, most of us do what is expected of us most of the time.  Yes we can change by removing ourselves from one circle and planting ourselves in another – but it is never as easy as that, and it can take years.  How do you go out and find a new bunch of friends?  You can’t because those people already have their own lives and associations and friendships.

Ramona, in reality is vulnerable, and the advice from the singer to her is not going to make her any less vulnerable, nor any less unhappy.

“All I really wanna do, is baby be friends with you,” doesn’t work if “baby” wants more, or indeed less.  In fact one possible outcome is that she moves over to the character in the Last Letter, and her reply is dreadful and appalling especially as we note that the opening line of that song is Why do you treat me as if I were only a friend…

The Last Letter has been described as delivering “a mood of utter loneliness unequaled in country music,” and it is extraordinary to think that Dylan has in effect written the prelude to The Last Letter, with Ramona.   Quite why people want to sing The Last Letter is beyond me – but that’s neither here nor there because a lot of what people like is beyond me.   But it was performed and recorded by Gene Autry and that made it a standard in the genre.  Rambin’ Jack Elliott, Willie Nelson, and the Blue Sky Boys, all recorded it.

But… I don’t think this was Dylan’s idea at all, because in effect not only did Dylan borrow and manipulate the melody, he also consciously or sub-consciously took the starting point of the lyrics from  “My Melancholy Baby”, which although dating from 1911, has been recorded so many times that it is hard to imagine Dylan, a student of 20th century music if ever there was one, did not know the song.

So, to be clear, we have “To Ramona” which is a “I can’t deal with you when you are like this” song, which is built upon “The Last Letter” which is a song about a suicide note, and “My Melancholy Baby” which is about a woman who is so sad that she is making the man she loves sad.

Come to me my melancholy baby,
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
All your fears are foolish fancies, may be
You know dear, that I’m in love with you.
Ev’ry cloud must have a silver lining;
Wait until the sun shines through.
Smile my honey, dear, while I kiss away each tear,
Or else I shall be melancholy too.

Lines such as

It’s all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin’ like this.

reflect this, as does the end, if we take it literally, where “I shall be melancholy too” reflects

“I’ll come and be crying to you”

But none of this critique means that lines such as “from fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem,” are not absolutely exquisite and fit the music perfectly.  Of course they are, of course they do.  The sources in fact don’t matter unless we are trying to argue that the song was for or about Joan Baez.


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2 Responses to To Ramona: an important song in understanding how Dylan composes, and the question of Joan Baez

  1. Dearbhla Egan - McArdle says:

    A stunning review that provides so much insight and food for thought. My mind was going in all directions as I read it, being reminded of other songs such as Visions of Johanna and It’s All over now Baby Blue. But mostly I was captured by the interpretation of the song itself and would regard it as one of the best reviews on this site. Thanks so much.

  2. Donald N. Bertram says:

    This was a wonderful and well thought out review, and I appreciated it considerably. But I think the more credible explanation must be put into the context of Dylan’s broader body of work. I think it shallow to ascribe his insights into the travails of the human heart to any one woman, or couple of women. This is a distillation that he is sharing with himself and the audience about conclusions he has come to regarding relationships and his (our) relationship to them.

    Look at Tangled Up In Blue: he is talking obviously about several different women as if they were one woman. All of his insights and his metaphores are an amalgam of the conclusions, or perhaps, more accurately, hypotheses, are a reflection of the mind of a gifted artist attempting to understand himself and the people he has known.

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