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.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3600 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all 602 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  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, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).

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

  1. Yes another great analysis by Tony. Had enough reading? Then listen to all the great versions of this song http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/463/Oh,-Sister and every other Dylan song inside his Music Box. Follow us inside and listen to greatness.

  2. Laurette says:

    My opinion is that Joan Baez believed Bob Dylan was somebody he was not; like her Lover or her Guru.
    On the same album we have “Sara”, the woman Bob Dylan decided to marry and he was still in love with her. He was trying to reconquer her in that song.
    “Oh sister” is a kind and sweet song from a POET.
    “Oh brother” is a dirty and judgemental song, down to earth, lousy poetry.
    Mrs Baez is washing her dirty laundry in public. Such a bad attitude for someone who is also a public image.
    She had been hurt by the Man but did not relate to the Poet.

  3. Brian says:

    I’m not religious and I don’t care about the Joan Baez angle. But I love this song because it has the perfect pace/tempo

  4. Stefan says:

    I ended up here after puzzling over this song and realizing it is simply a reimagining of the Gemini/Leda/Swan/Zeus/Helen Greek myths in language that is of course expansive as any good piece of literature is. I was wondering if there has been anything else mentioned along these lines. Thanks for the historical context in which it was written.

  5. PKP says:

    Bob’s works so well because of Scarlet Rivera

    Hopefully that’s plainly obvious. The John Hammond (i.e., live) performance illustrates that beautifully.

  6. C says:

    Riposte, not “repost”.

  7. fjodor says:

    Thanks for yet another in-depth post. I wasn’t aware of the specific situation at the John Hammond concert, and Dylan’s introduction to the song …

    I find it fascinating how much of Dylan’s lyrics work on several levels. Regarding this song, I think despite the obvious biographic references, there is a poetic level (thanks Laurette!) that reaches well beyond the trials and tribulations of personal relationships. It could be a spirit aspect (speaker) addressing a soul aspect (sister), who is not yet ready for him …

  8. Harry Needleman says:

    Believe song is response to Joan Baez and religious references. The last two lines in the second and third stanzas are clear reference to Dylan’s beliefs.

  9. K says:

    I really enjoyed this analysis, thank you.

    One thing that always amazes me when reading of people’s interpretations of the Dylan/Baez relationship is how much emphasis is put (not least by Baez) on the ways in which Dylan apparently slighted or betrayed her (by not being as much in love with her as she was with him, or by sidelining her on the 1966 tour, or by telling her – privately I guess – that her poetry was lousy). Yet there is rarely a mention of her very public betrayal of their private relationship with the release of ‘To Bobby’ in 1972, a song in which she calls Dylan out by name for following his own artistic direction and ‘abandoning’ her and her fellow protesters ‘on the road’… she goes so far as to lay dying children on his conscience, because he didn’t live the life she would have chosen for him. Not privately, but for public consumption. He may have told her her poetry was lousy (maybe he didn’t, who knows), but she basically told the world that he’s a lousy person who doesn’t care about dying children.

    Particularly given how intensely uncomfortable Dylan has always seemed with the ‘spokesman of a generation’ stuff , to my mind that song is far more egregious back stab, a far greater cruelty than any story I’ve ever heard about how he treated her. Whether she did it to get back at him for hurting her, or because she really thought it would bring him back to the protest movement, or because it would increase public interest in her own song / album, who knows. Either way, what an awful thing to do to someone you claim to have love for.

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