Songs about Bob Dylan: The Joan Baez songs

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron suggested that there are enough songs about Bob Dylan to make a new series, so here we are, starting out with the Joan Baez songs.

And Tony picked up on the idea – so in this series, as before, much of the leg work is done by Aaron and the words are put into some sort of relevant order (or not as may be the case) by Tony.  The “I” is thus Tony.  And that is where we begin…

I’ve always been bemused by Joan Baez as a songwriter, because she is obviously brilliant at the art, and yet has released so little of her work.  Or maybe she really has not written many songs;  I’ve found eight of her compositions, but even if I’ve lost half of what she has created, that is still a tiny number for someone with such talent.

Dylan and Baez met in 1961, and at that time she was already ahead of Bob in the LP stakes – and two of her first three albums went gold.  But by 1963 they were often to be found sharing a stage, and then as these things go, within a couple of years of that they were drifting apart.

But Baez was part of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and in Renaldo and Clara, and by then had already written “To Bobby”.  This was released in 1972, possibly written in 1971.

I'll put flowers at your feet and I will sing to you so sweet
And hope my words will carry home to your heart
You left us marching on the road and said how heavy was the load
But the years were young, the struggle barely had its start
Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?
They're crying for you
See the children in the morning light, Bobby
They're dying

No one could say it like you said it, we'd only try and just forget it
You stood alone upon the mountain till it was sinking
And in a frenzy we tried to reach you
With looks and letters we would beseech you
Never knowing what, where or how you were thinking
Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?
They're crying for you
See the children in the morning light, Bobby
They're dying
Perhaps the pictures in the Times could no longer be put in rhymes
When all the eyes of starving children are wide open
You cast aside the cursed crown and put your magic into a sound
That made me think your heart was aching or even broken

But if God hears my complaint He will forgive you
And so will I, with all respect, I'll just relive you
And likewise, you must understand these things we give you

Like these flowers at your door and scribbled notes about the war
We're only saying the time is short and there is work to do
And we're still marching in the streets with little victories and big defeats
But there is joy and there is hope and there's a place for you

And you have heard the voices in the night, Bobby
They're crying for you
See the children in the morning light, Bobby
They're dying

This is an astoundingly powerful personal song to release as Baez seeks to persuade Dylan to return to political commentary, perhaps not grasping, as so many people did not, that Bob was for most of the time, not calling on people to rise up, but rather saying “this is how it is”.

Change he suggested, if it ever does come, just happens.  The times are a changing, not because we are making changes for the better, but because things change.  Hollis Brown shoots his wife and kids and then himself because life is so terrible.  He doesn’t rise up and overthrow the state.

Now this of course is ludicrous.  How can I perceive that Dylan is just saying change happens, while Joan Baez feels that by singing about it, change can be made to happen in the right way?

I don’t know, but people saw Dylan as a protest singer, and that thought dominated the feelings about some of his songs rather as those people who have seen Dylan as a religious songwriter have seen religion in every song.

In Chronicles Dylan said, “Joan Baez recorded a protest song about me that was getting big play, challenging me to get with it – come out and take charge, lead the masses – be an advocate, lead the crusade. The song called out to me from the radio like a public service announcement.”

But it was on Diamonds and Rust that Baez showed her extraordinary talent as a songwriter with the title track.

Well I'll be damned
Here comes your ghost again
But that's not unusual
It's just that the moon is full
And you happened to call

And here I sit, hand on the telephone
Hearing a voice I'd known
A couple of light years ago
Heading straight for a fall

As I remember your eyes
Were bluer than robin's eggs
"My poetry was lousy", you said
Where are you calling from?
A booth in the Midwest

Ten years ago
I bought you some cuff links
You brought me something
And we both know what memories can bring
They bring diamonds and rust

You burst on the scene
Already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You strayed into my arms

And there you stayed
Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes the girl on the half-shell
Would keep you unharmed
Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling around
An' snow in your hair
Now you're smiling out the window
Of that crummy hotel over Washington Square

Our breath comes out white clouds
Mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

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
'Cause 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

Even now all these years – and decades – since I first heard the song I marvel over it.  It is so perfectly composed, so perfectly rounded, how could this be unless the songwriter had written hundreds before to get to this level?

Or if this what she could do straight off, why not write 100 more, because this is a profound work of art!

It was in the year that Diamonds and Rust was released that Dylan invited Joan Baez onto the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and of course on the tour they did sing a few protest songs.   But I am not sure any new ones emerged at that time.

And as a postscript, how about this thought.

Can you imagine someone writing a song for you with the lines

And you have heard the voices in the night, Bobby
They’re crying for you
See the children in the morning light, Bobby
They’re dying

What would you do?

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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.

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1 Response to Songs about Bob Dylan: The Joan Baez songs

  1. Ralph Hitchens says:

    Joan Baez always wore her heart on her sleeve. Honest about everything. Her two autobiographies certainly make clear her feelings about Bob Dylan. And I agree, “Diamonds and Rust” is a magnificent love song.

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