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
Joan Baez was everything I would have wanted to be had I grown up in the 60’s: she had that sexy bohemian look and style that I love, extreme talent on the guitar, a voice that sang out for justice, and of course she had Bob Dylan. You can’t think Joan Baez without also thinking Bob Dylan; in some ways they are synonymous with each other probably because of the fact that Joan Baez really gave Dylan his start, or at least introduced him to the broad masses in her sold out shows. Funny then, how it was through Dylan that I discovered Baez. I remember first hearing them sing together on the Live at Philharmonic Hall 1964 CD, laughing together through parts of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “All I Really Want To Do.” Baez’s voice penetrated through the speakers: strong, bold and demanding attention. It was an odd mix: her strong, sweet voice mixed with Dylan’s “nasally” sometimes off-key one but it worked, and I loved it. These initial encounters piqued my curiosity and I went searching for more Joan Baez.
One of the first CD’s I checked was her Greatest Hits CD. I was entranced by her popular song, “Diamonds and Rust.” It was the lyrics that got me–recalling bittersweet memories of her love affair with Dylan. It’s very poetic, and I love her imagery and phrasing throughout. Take for example these lines from the song:
Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling around
And 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
I can just see the two of them there, frozen in a time of temporary happiness. As any Dylan, or Baez fan, would know from reading the many biographies and books about them, their brief relationship was one consisting of either euphoric happiness or misery. From the several accounts of their relationships that I have read about, it seemed Dylan played around quite a bit (seeing both Suze Rotolo and Baez at the same time, and later seeing his future wife Sara while he was “with” Baez). He was, as we’ve seen in video footage and read about, quite moody as well. For me, “Diamonds and Rust” seems to be the emotional outpouring of how Baez felt when she was suddenly reminded of her feelings for him when he called her some years after their split. It’s raw and very real. Interestingly, I learned in How Sweet the Sound (see below) that Baez admittes that when she sat down to write “Diamonds and Rust” it was not intended to be about Dylan, but that he happened to call while she was writing it, and there you have it! (“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”).
From there, I discovered “Love is Just a Four Letter Word,” (which Dylan wrote), “Love Song to a Stranger,” “Song for David,” and of course the many Dylan covers she did like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”
I delved deep into Baez’s life, along with the lives of Dylan, Baez’s sister Mimi, and her husband Richard Farina in Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu. It was a very engaging read, following the life and careers of all four while giving a clear depiction of the 1960’s music scene. I loved the “insider” feeling that Hajdu created with his many details, making me feel as if I personally knew Baez and Dylan. For example, I laughed out loud (literally) when I read a letter Dylan wrote to Baez’s mother pretending to be her (on page 219). He refers to himself as “you-know-who” throughout the letter. Despite his goofiness, Baez really believed in Dylan and was taken by his ‘genius.’ According to Hajdu, she would even pull crumpled pieces of paper that Dylan had written notes or lyrics on from the garbage can.
Joan Baez was not only a singer of political songs, but she was an active protester, joining in marches and demonstrations throughout the years. She even convinced Dylan to sing with her for the freedom march from Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963.
How Sweet the Sound documentary, which came out in 2009, is a very personal, close look at Baez’s life. Her reflections on the past are interspersed with rare video footage from the time she is a child through her later years, including her controversial visit to North Vietnam. Captured wonderfully are her early performances both as solo act and with other musicians including Dylan and her sister Mimi. Dylan himself appears in the interviews stating that Baez could play the guitar better than anyone he ever heard. Especially moving is Baez’s memories of her sister Mimi’s battle,and ultimate loss ,with cancer. She says emotionally, “I don’t deal well with loss. The fact is, I’ve never dealt that completely with the loss of my sister.” Click below for a snippet of the PBS documentary.
Don’t Look Back, although primarily a documentary about Dylan and his 1965 tour, it also features Baez and is definitely worth watching. Similarly, Pete Seeger: Power of Song documentary discusses the important impact Seeger and his music have had on folk music, and features commentary by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
The No Direction Home documentary is a classic. Director Martin Scorsese takes viewers on a journey through Dylan’s life, from his time growing up in Minnesota, to the early days in Greenwich Village and finally to his tremendous popular years through the 60’s. The film features commentary and early video footage of Baez. It’s fun to watch how they interacted together both on and off the stage.
And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir is Baez’s honest look at her life up until the point the book was published. She talks very extensively about her political activism and the new places and experiences it brought to her. She speaks poignantly about her relationship with Dylan and her life.
OWL has a great selection of Baez CD’s, including The First Ten Years, which contains a few of my favorites: “Farewell Angelina,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall..” Joan Baez Vol.2, features a collection of traditional ballads like The “The Lily of the West” and “I Once Loved A Boy”, brought to life and anew with Baez’s voice. Day After Tomorrow is Baez’s latest work, released in 2008. My favorites on the CD are “God is God,” and “Day After Tomorrow.” Dark Chords on a Big Guitar was released in 2003 and contains the beautiful song by Ryan Adams, “In my Time of Need.” The whole CD is dedicated in memory of Mimi.
~Have fun discovering, or rediscovering, Joan Baez~
Sarai is the Publicity Coordinator/Library Assistant and is very excited about seeing Joan Baez this Friday, November 5 at the Schubert Theatre!