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(Credit: Rowland Scherman)

Music

Did Bob Dylan write this classic song about Joan Baez?

Bob Dylan has written many mystifying songs, and one of the finest, yet most divisive is ‘Visions of Johanna’ from 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. Clocking in at a lengthy 7:31, since it was released as part of one of the Minnesota native’s most revered bodies of work, the track has had fans perplexed at who the song was written about due to lines such as, “visions of Johanna that conquer my mind”.

It is certain that the truth will never be uncovered, as the acclaimed songwriter is one of music’s most opaque figures, keeping his cards very close to his chest. Alas, this is all part of the magic of Bob Dylan.

Interestingly, once when interviewed by Rolling Stone, Dylan appeared to offer some insight into the track, however, it came in the form of another unclear statement: “It’s easier to be disconnected than connected. I’ve got a huge hallelujah for all the people who’re connected, that’s great, but I can’t do that.”

Per the account of Clinton Heylin, a scholar who has worked extensively on Dylan, at the time ‘Visions of Johanna’ was written, he was living with his girlfriend and future spouse, Sara, at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, New York.

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Following on from this claim, another respected Dylan scholar, Greil Marcus, has even narrowed the writing of the song down to a more specific timeframe. He contends that the track was written during the infamous northeast blackout that engulfed New York and seven other eastern states on November 9th, 1965, which left people without electricity for up to 13 hours. If true, this accounts for the track’s famous line, “These heat pipes just cough”, but it still leaves us lacking when it comes to the most pressing aspect, the identity of Johanna.

For that, a little lyric analysis is in order. At one point in ‘Visions of Johanna’, Dylan sings: “But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles”. 

The story of the Mona Lisa is a well-known one, it is one of the most famous artworks in the world, painted in the early 1500s by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the archetypal works of the Italian Renaissance. Depicting Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, it has been on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris since 1797.

In the following verse, Dylan sings: “And Madonna, she still has not showed”. In the Catholic religion, a Madonna is a work of art that features Mary, the mother of Jesus. Whilst some have taken this reference literally, particularly when noting that the song has a rather spiritual feel, others have taken it one step further when thinking of Dylan’s life and career up to writing ‘Visions of Johanna’.

Long before the popstar of the same name emerged, ‘Madonna’ was the nickname for the celebrated folk musician Joan Baez. Despite Heylin and Marcus’ assertions that the track was written when Dylan was with Sara, Baez fits the profile of the song as he had been in a serious romantic relationship with her from 1961 until early 1965, not long before it is claimed that he wrote the song. Compounding this is the fact that her name is Joan, not a far cry from Johanna.

A monumental figure in Dylan’s life, in 1963, Baez brought Dylan onstage at the Newport Folk Festival to perform with her, when she was much more famous than he was, and afterwards, he saw his profile rise exponentially. This is considered a turning point in his life and the true start of his trajectory that saw him become an icon. Baez earned the ‘Madonna’ nickname after her performance at the same festival four years prior in 1959 when a writer described her as the “barefoot Madonna”, accounting for her humble demeanour and spiritual music, and the fact that she always championed the voice of the little man.

Joan Baez likely had some amount of influence on Dylan writing ‘Visions of Johanna’, something she attests to in ‘Winds of the Old Days’ during which she makes her claim. But frustratingly, we will never know the truth. Furthermore, as this is Bob Dylan, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to posit that the song is about numerous people, a technique he’s employed many times. 

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