If you don’t know Dylan’s “Love is just a four letter word” you MUST hear this NOW

By Tony Attwood

In writing these reviews I have found a few songs I have never heard before. But there are more songs I have heard, and then have forgotten – and suddenly I hear the song again and am blown off my feet.

OK, not literally but I did sit down very suddenly as I heard Joan Baez move straight out of her introductory chitchat and start singing “Love is just a four letter word”.   How could I ever have forgotten this piece?  And I mean not just the song, but this rendition is just WOW WOW WOW.

And yes I know that in the past five years I have “discovered” 20 odd Dylan songs of which I have said you must hear this now, now, now but when it comes down to it there is such an extraordinary collection of songs that Dylan wrote and which were not released (or occasionally in which the wrong version – in my view – was released) that yes there are 20+ forgotten gems out there.

Here it is… and do pay attention to her chit chat at the start even if you can’t get what she is saying – it is the way she starts the song out of nothing (as much as anything else) that is so wonderful.  I have been playing this for two days solid driving everyone else utterly mad…

In fact if you want to leave recordings running you also get Lily, Rosemary…

But back to “Love is…”

Joan Baez sings a completely different last verse from that shown on the Dylan site, and Heylin quotes another version which opens with

I went on my way unnoticed in the winter driving rain
In and out of lifetimes unmentioned of my name

which is pretty good stuff in my view.  In fact we are reminded once again that Dylan has this incredible ability to take ordinary phrases and put complete scenes into them.  Take for example

Down in the Gypsy Café
With a friend of a friend of mine

That is so simple and so extraordinary within the context.  Here’s the first verse in full…

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Café
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat with a baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
A phrase in connection first with she I heard
That love is just a four letter word

And it just so good, here’s the rest of it… although there are variants here from what is sung…

Outside a rambling storefront window
Cats meowed to the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut, too
To you I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were rapping while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, I heard
You say that love is just a four letter word

I went on my way unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more
Absurd than that love is just a four letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
that love is just a four letter word

In fact reports suggest that Joan began performing the piece even before it was finished and she sings a part of it in “Don’t Look Back”.  It first turned up on  Any Day Now, in 1968 and she has since recorded it three more times and released it as a single.

But it seems that Bob either didn’t like or just never got around to finishing it – at least from the snippets of information that are revealed through reminiscences and commentary.  (And we can get a hint as to why he didn’t want it when the next song he produced was Subterranean Homesick Blues.  He was going some place very different.)

The live version is, for me a much better version than the one that appears on “The First Ten Years” where the fill in accompaniments (sitar in the first verse, piano in the second etc) just get in the way and sound horribly imposed and unnecessary.

There are some strange versions of it out there, such as an instrumental by Hit Crew Masters and / or “Studio Musicians” (not to my taste in either case). Then there is the Joy of Cooking version, which has an extra push that Joan Baez ignores, and which rounds off each verse in a way that I don’t find musically necessary. Not to be confused with “Love Ain’t Just another four letter word” which is quite a different kettle of fish.

Here’s another live solo version embedded within an article just in case the earlier link goes down – it is slightly more gentle than the first one above.

And here is a studio version taken at a slower speed and with the extra accompaniment.


And another version with a rather famous guest

There are many more versions around on the internet by JB.  They are all worth listening to.  They really are.

Musically the song is very unusual for Dylan – maybe there is another use of this chord sequence, but there certainly isn’t a melody like this…

It is in G but often doesn’t quite seem like that rotating around the other chords of the key:

D, Em, D, Em, D, Em

D, Am, D, Am, D, Am, D, Am


D7 G

It doesn’t break any of the conventions of popular music, it is just that I don’t know anyone else who has done this. And it is a clever ploy because you feel it is in G all the time, but we don’t actually get to the key chord until the very end.

Clever guy this Bob Dylan.

And what a beautiful, beautiful, exquisite, wonderful song.

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Hi. I’m glad you got to know this song finally.
    It is a very mature work for a young guy. and I know of NO recordings of Bob singing it. He may have just written it for Joan and never recorded it. Maybe just played it for her. It’s one of my favorite Dylan songs. I got to see Baez live at Indiana university in about 1993. She opened with Farewell Angelina, and 4 Letter Word. I knew both of those songs already but did not expect this. It was a very big treat. Of course she also made fun of Dylan a bit but that is sour grapes. A duet album with the two of them is long overdue and will probably not happen. I don’t think she cares for him now. He isn’t “liberal” enough. Not PC. But it would be great to hear them together on that song. I think 4 Letter Word, and Farewell Angelina were both written for her. His recording of Farewell is not very interesting. Hers is great. Glad you got to know that song. And the irony of using Love and Four Letter Word is great. Maybe most of so called love is nothing more than a four letter word: fuck!!! Regards, John

  2. Thank you for posting about “Four Letter Word.” It is a remarkable song, particularly because the melody line and the lyrical line work so seamlessly together, mimicking each other (in this respect the song is similar to “Every Grain of Sand”). I had no idea there were other lyrics that Dylan wrote but did not get incorporated into Joan Baez’s version. The story I picked up – maybe from the Scorsese documentary – is that Dylan wrote the song, didn’t record it, leaving it to Baez to put it out. When they were together listening to the radio they heard the song, Dylan remarking that “that is a pretty good song you just did” or something like that, apparently forgetting that he had actually written it. The shame is that Dylan never recorded it. Despite the virtues in the Baez recordings, it is a unfortunate that Dylan didn’t do his own interpretation as I suspect he would have dug more irony out of it than she does, would have invested it with more depth.

  3. Tennessee Williams: ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’:

    “You don’t know what love is. To you it’s just a four-letter word”.

  4. I suppose Dylan got the phrase from Tennessee Williams. The best of Baez’s versions is her live recording on the From Every Stage.

  5. One of my fave moments of “Don’t Look Back” when Joan sings part of Love is Just a 4 Letter Word and Bob says something like “Hey that’s a good song! Who wrote that?” and she says something like “You did, ya big dummie!”

  6. Thank you for your review. I can feel your love for this song; but its so hard to write about isn’t it? I also think that Bob just gave this song to Joan. Maybe Joan wrote the last verse. It does seem to be true that Bob kinda such started it and never finished it. Its certainly one of his best. Its strange that sometimes the artist can’t see which of his art is best. I would really love to know how you would interpret meanings in Sad eyed lady of the lowlands.

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