A Ruling From the Eight Year Old



“This isn’t Bob Dylan,” said my son in the car on his way to swimming class.

“No,” I told him, “it’s Joan Baez. She was his girlfriend.”

“Only Bob Dylan. All year. You said.”

“Well,” I countered, “he’s playing the harmonica.”  We were listening to “Silver Dagger”, the lone Baez solo song on Bootleg Series 6: Live from the Philharmonic Hall.

“It only counts if Bob Dylan is singing.”

Sebastian is interested in the Dylan project even when he is flummoxed by it. Later on the same trip he complained that we’d already heard one of the songs and I told him that this was a live version.

“It all sounds the same. Same same same” he said.

“Then why did you complain about “Silver Dagger”?,” I asked.

“Not Dylan. Doesn’t count.”

He’s right, of course, a lot of it does sound the same. But a lot of it does sound different. Listening to the live performances is all about the tyranny of little differences.

Some of the material plays well on repeat, others not so much. On Bootleg Series 6 Baez and Dylan absolutely massacre “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. They are out of sync. They can’t agree on the lyrics. You can hear Dylan telling them to her mid-song. It’s a debacle, but a charming debacle. The audience finds it cute in its spontaneous genuineness. So did I the first time. Third time through I can’t listen any longer. Charming quickly becomes cloying and I thumb to the next track.

Good show generally. Nice to capture Baez and Dylan together on the downswing of their time together in the fall of 1964 (the rupture would come six months later in England).

“Same same same,” says Sebastian.

I can’t find any footage of the Philharmonic Hall show, so here’s Baez’s version of “Silver Dagger”, the first track on her first album.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright



The last great song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. The first track on the second side, it could almost actually be the best thing on the whole album (it’s not, but it’s close), which is saying quite a lot. Dylan will go on to write a whole raft of break-up songs, but this is the template for all the rest of them. These are the cool lyrics, with an undercurrent of hurt, and with the false veneer that says ‘nothing really bothers me’. This is the kind of song that most people wish they could sing when they getting dumped, but few of them actually can.

In the summer of 1963 Dylan was seeing both Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo (his longtime on-again off-again girlfriend who is hugging his arm on the cover of Freewheelin’). Baez performed this song during her set at the Newport Folk Festival, and introduced it, with Rotolo in the audience, thusly: “Here’s another Bobby song. This is a song about a love affair that has lasted too long”. Rotolo, of course, walked out. Some day someone is going to make the great Bob Dylan romance film, and it’s going to be all about the summer of 1963. I have to say, my mental of image of Baez is so gauzy and clouded with her semi-saintliness that I just can’t imagine her being cruel to someone. I probably need to snap out of that.

I should note that I haven’t written about Dylan’s break-out performance at Newport this week because I haven’t been able to watch The Other Side of the Mirror, the documentary about his three Newport performances. I ordered a copy from Amazon, and it looks now like it will arrive next week. I may wait and just review all three years of Newport shows at once in two weeks time. There’s a lot of material on YouTube, of course, but it seems preferable to just watch the film.

Back to the topic at hand: “Don’t Think Twice” is a major accomplishment for the young Dylan, an inspired and hauntingly emotional song that helps establish his range.

Having listened to Freewheelin’ every day for a week, this is how I’ve got it broken down:

Girl From the North Country

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

Blowin’ in the Wind

Oxford Town

Masters of War

Bob Dylan’s Dream

The rest of the album is fine, but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s Joan, but not from Newport. Still a great version though:

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan



Rebecca wants me to tell you that Joan Baez made Bob Dylan’s career. She may well even have a point. While it’s true that Dylan received incredible support from the folk acts of the early-1960s (Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul and Mary, many others) who recorded, performed and endorsed his songs and his skills, it was Baez that pushed him to the next level.

Baez broke onto the folk scene about three years earlier than Dylan, with her performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. By the time Dylan was playing coffee houses in New York, she was already a successful performer who could be found on television. Dylan writes in Chronicles that he fell in love with her the first time he saw her on television (who wouldn’t have?), and though the two met at a show in New York very early in his career, it wasn’t until 1963 that they became a couple and performed together frequently on stage.

They seem to have met at the Monterey Folk Festival, where they sang a duet, “With God on Our Side”, on May 18, 1963 (nine days before the release of Freewheelin’). For much of May and June, apparently, Dylan lived with Baez at her home in Carmel. All through August of that year Dylan appeared at Baez’s live concerts as a special guest, performing a half dozen songs, while about half of her set was comprised of things that he had written (Robert Shelton reports that he was actually paid more for his supporting role on her tour than she was – nice to know that outrageous gender pay disparities existed even in the progressive folk scene of the day). Shelton indicates that he wasn’t that well received at the early shows on the tour, but audience reactions grew better over time.

Certainly Baez put Dylan over as a star by performing so much of this music on her tour, but more than that, and this is Rebecca’s point, it was her voice that helped him. Baez is one of the very few people who can convincingly duet with Dylan, who has significant limitations as a singer. Basically, you need to work around Dylan – there doesn’t seem to be much chance that he is going to harmonize with you. At the March on Washington, for example, she fills in the gaps around his voice. Her contributions to the singing are always more musically nuanced, and the strength and clarity of her voice take the rough edges off his. While there was a strong “hillbilly” tendency in American folk that would allow the scenesters to appreciate solo Dylan, for the vast mainstream of American music fans, folk meant the clear tones of Baez and Seeger, not the regional twang of Dylan. By lending her voice to his, Baez made him more credible as a solo singer for the pop world at a time when he might otherwise have just become a songwriter.

I don’t have a great deal of Baez and Dylan singing together from 1963, which is too bad because what I do have is so great. Here’s the one that I think you should listen to, “Troubled and I Don’t Know Why”, from Forest Hills Stadium (August 17, 1963). I had never heard this song before this week. I believe that Dylan wrote it, but am not exactly sure of it. His website seems to indicate it, and it also suggests that this is the only time he played it live. It’s a perfect example of Baez smoothing off Dylan’s rough edges and making him palatable. Plus it’s quite the foot stomper of a song – three chords and power right through. I’m going to learn it on my banjo!

The March on Washington



Bob Dylan’s role in the March on Washington (August 28, 1963) was a minor one, though it profoundly shaped the way that he was understood as a singer-songwriter, and as “the voice of a generation”. Without Dylan, the March would still be remembered as one of the key moments in American postwar history for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and for the enormity of the crowd and the righteousness of their cause. Without the March, Dylan’s image would have been significantly different. Interestingly, however, Dylan only rarely played such politicized events after this one – it does not seem to be something that suited him.

The best that I can tell, the folk song portion of the event was the fourteenth thing on the schedule (King was sixteenth, so Dylan’s performance was near the end of the day). Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson both sang, and then Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had been touring during the summer, sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom”. The two of them sang “When the Ship Comes In” and Dylan did “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, which was an interesting choice insofar as the lyrics suggest that Byron de la Beckwith was not the main reason for the death of Medgar Evers. Dylan’s suggestion of a larger social cause – something that he stumbled while explaining to Studs Terkel in their interview – is an awkward fit for the event. Peter, Paul and Mary also played at the event (“If I Had a Hammer” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), as well as Odetta. The whole folk section of the day’s event ended with Len Chandler leading “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, the song that was borrowed as the title for a remarkable PBS documentary about the civil rights movement.

Dylan, Baez, & Stookey In The Lincoln Memorial

Dylan’s place in the history of the event was a minor one, but it helped cement the relationship between the new folk scene and the civil rights movement. For some fans it helped lay the foundation for the sense of betrayal that they would feel as his music began to change by the middle of the next year.

There is a tremendous video on YouTube of the musical performances from that day, plus footage from the crowds. It’s well worth watching in its entirety. Dylan seems nervous in front of the crowd, while Baez is so confident as she strides in to provide harmonies. Do yourself a favour, watch the whole thing:

Blowin’ in the Wind



Three verses made bob Dylan a superstar.

Written in 1962, Blowin’ in the Wind initially had only two verses. The third (“How many years can a mountain exist…”) was inserted into the middle of the other two. It’s the key verse, the one that ties it to the civil rights movement and the one that helped make Dylan the ‘voice of a generation’. Only a semi-protest song (the questioning rhetorical strategy broadens the appeal by expanding its focus to be too all-inclusive to be properly termed ‘protest’), it is a genuine anthem of the decade that produced it, and it was transformative.

Some sources indicate that Pete Seeger was the first to perform it live, learning the words and lyrics from Dylan backstage in a New York club before showcasing it for the crowd. It was first recorded by The Chad Mitchell Trio but their record company balked at releasing it. When it was snapped up by Peter, Paul and Mary it became a smash hit, selling three hundred thousand copies in its first week of release. Voice of a generation, indeed.

According to my iTunes playlist, I have fifty-one different versions of this song on my phone (many are live versions by Dylan, who has performed it live in concert – according to his website – an astounding 1,190 times). I have to say, it’s not a favorite of mine. It’s groundbreaking, yes, even era-defining, but also a little too dull for me. It’s one of his least variable songs as it only works well in a limited set of tempos and arrangements. I’ve always liked Joan Baez’s versions – it suits her well.

According to Robert Shelton, Blowin’ was a key part of Albert Grossman’s strategy to build the Dylan brand. Grossman also managed Peter, Paul and Mary and his goal for 1963 was big hit, strong word of mouth for Dylan as a songwriter from established folk performers like Seeger and Baez, and a big push at the Newport Folk Festival, where Baez had made her name in 1959. Blowin’ helped both Grossman and Dylan achieve their goals.

The song owes a musical debt to “No More Auction Block For Me”, and it was the subject of a false plagiarism claim that dogged Dylan for a few years, although his subsequent songwriting demonstrated that he had no need to rip off anyone.

As I say, not one of my favourites, but I do like this live version from 1963 – one of Dylan’s earliest television appearances.