Oh Sister: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, exchanging thoughts through song.

By Tony Attwood

If we leave Money Blues out of the equation for the moment (because everything about it is odd and difficult to equate with Jacques Levy) then Oh Sister is the first collaboration song between Levy and Bob Dylan, and yet once again we have problems.

We can hear the same sort of reflective moodiness that there is in One More Cup of Coffee written just before this song, and there seems to be little Levy in place here.

In addition, one wonders how on earth Levy would have become involved in the whole Joan Baez / Bob Dylan fighting through songs affair, which came along and which seems to incorporate

  • Diamonds and Rust
  • Oh Sister
  • O Brother

I’m going to start with this interchange between the two because it seems to me not only of some considerable importance within the song, but also something of significance; after all what other folk / pop / rock musicians have had a duel through songs written to each other in such a public way.

Diamonds and Rust was written in 1974 and if you don’t know it or want to be reminded try this …

I’ve chosen this version because it was recorded soon after writing, and because it starts with the comment “by far the most talented crazy person I ever worked with” which appears to be a note to the effect that the song is about Dylan.

And it ends with this verse, which I really do think is a masterpiece within the folk pop genre…

Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
Because I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid

Skip forwards to Oh, Sister written in the first half of 1975 – so not too long after – and we have Dylan singing it at the John Hammond concert in September before a specially invited audience, including Joan Baez.

Dylan introduced the song (which you can hear on the video below) with the line “I want to dedicate this to someone out there watching tonight I know, she knows who she is”

Here’s the video

The song ends

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

Now that might be enough of an interchange for most people, but no, Baez came back with O Brother! on “Gulf Winds” the only album she created which was entirely written by herself.  She says in her autobiography, “And a voice to sing with” that for the most part the songs were written while on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan.

The song is available here, but it is not a perfect recording.  Go and download the song to hear a proper version.

You’ve got eyes like Jesus
But you speak with a viper’s tongue
We were just sitting around on earth
Where the hell did you come from?
With your lady dressed in deerskin
And an amazing way about her
When are you going to realize
That you just can’t live without her?

Take it easy
Take it light
But take it

And just in case you are not convinced this is a repost to the earlier songs

Your lady gets her power
From the goddess and the stars
You get yours from the trees and the brooks
And a little from life on Mars
And I’ve known you for a good long while
And would you kindly tell me, mister
How in the name of the Father and the Son
Did I come to be your sister?

But this is not Baez being all nice and saying its all ok

You’ve done dirt to lifelong friends
With little or no excuses
Who endowed you with the crown
To hand out these abuses?
Your lady knows about these things
But they don’t put her under
Me, I know about them, too
And I react like thunder

I love this song, not just because it sounds good but because Baez gets into the meat of the fight between two artists in a way that rarely happens – and certainly never happens when a journalist toddles along and asks inane questions.  This is good, insightful stuff.

I know you are surrounded
By parasites and sycophants
When I come to see you
I dose up on coagulants
Because when you hurl that bowie knife
It’s going to be when my back is turned
Doing some little deed for you
And baby, will I get burned

I won’t go on and quote it all through to the end, but consider this as a reply to Dylan:

My love for you extends through life
And I don’t want to waste it
But honey, what you’ve been dishing out
You’d never want to taste it

This exchange and the seemingly endless exchange between fans on the website arguing about the meaning of Oh, Sister, are the two sides of understanding this song.   If 1000 people have written about the meaning of Dylan’s song, they have come up with 1000 different meanings, from incest, to a commentary on women in general, and of course a whole host of religious meanings (this is after all a Dylan song).

Dylan played the song in concert for a while (67 performances between October 1975 and July 1978) but then let it go, even though it got a good reception when played.

The copy of the lyrics supplied on the official Dylan web site has Father with the capital F, and His later, to suggest he is talking about God’s blessing on the relationship.

Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?

When we consider the direction of these lyrics, with the blessing of the Almighty on the relationship, and perhaps on their combined creative talents, the power of Baez’ reply is overwhelming.  For Dylan the truth is mystical…

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved

Baez however wanted nothing to do with that…

My love for you extends through life
And I don’t want to waste it
But honey, what you’ve been dishing out
You’d never want to taste it

Dylan’s taunt is that that he might not be there in the future – a sort of “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” taken up to a spiritual level…

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

But if Baez knows anything she sure does know who she is.

The Rolling Stone review of the album suggested that “the bulk of the songs are nightmares, visions of a man on the run from something he can’t define, or else stories about the fear of having nowhere to turn (as in “Oh, Sister” and “One More Cup of Coffee”).”

But watching the performance of the song with Baez in the audience I don’t get the feel of that at all.

Instead I am, even at the end of a couple of days of studying the piece, very much with the commentator on line who said, “I can’t be sure, because, sadly, I wasn’t in the room with Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy when they wrote this song. But I have the distinct feeling that this is the one song on Desire where Levy’s contributions amounted to little more than exclaiming ‘Beautiful!'”

So do we have “a deceptively simple plea for human kindness from one person to another,” which is then rebuffed by those most cutting lines?

Well, yes, that is where I have ended up.

In this context

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved

doesn’t have any religious context, but rather reflects on the lives of creative artists who, in the endlessly demanding world of popular arts today, have to create more and more and more of a higher and higher quality, or else instantly get subjected to talentless critics writing a year’s worth of work off with a “he’s lost it” one line throwaway.

When it comes down to it, Dylan is saying, “hey lady we were ok” and she’s saying “no man, you were awful, don’t kid yourself.”

As for the music “Oh, sister” Dylan uses a musical trick he developed on the last two albums of using the classic chord structure of non-blues popular song (in this case G, B minor, C, G) but then in the middle 8 using the much more blues orientated F, C, G combination, ending with the powerful held “saved” on D.

It is powerful stuff, but the meaning remains in shadows.  Which is most certainly not the case with either of Baez’ songs to Dylan.  It is as if he is trying to excuse himself by wrapping the song up in religious or symbolic suggestion without very clear meaning.

And he might have got away with it, if it had not been for those two Baez songs either side.

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