In June 1966, Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde. The album is widely deemed one of the cherished songwriter’s greatest; it showed Dylan at the top of his game both lyrically and musically. While the sound of Dylan’s voice and his musical arrangements are often a source of intrigue and pleasure, it’s his unique knack for wordsmithery that reaps the most reward.
Of all of the songs on the 1966 double album, the lyrics in ‘Visions of Johanna’ have always drawn me in most. The translucent imagery and opaque narrative bring much to be pondered. Who is Johanna? Who is Louise? Where is Dylan? His voice is mournful, but why? Let’s have a closer look.
While writing the lyrics for ‘Visions of Johanna’, Dylan was living with his future wife Sara at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Some accounts go as far as to say the song was written during the East Coast blackout that hit New York and seven neighbouring states on November 9th, 1965.
The lyrics “In this room the heat pipes just cough” seem to align with this setting. In November, the heating at the old Chelsea Hotel would most certainly be needed, and the old fashioned pipes would have been subject to a fair amount of creaking and groaning.
When Dylan originally wrote the song, it was laid out under a working title of ‘Freeze Out’, which seems to bolster claims that it was written during or close to the East Coast blackout.
In the fourth verse, Dylan mentions the Mona Lisa: “But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.” This line references Leonardo da Vinci’s famous early 1500s artwork, which shows a mysterious woman sitting in front of a rural landscape. The artwork is among the most famous of all time, not just because of the fame of its creator, but because of its air of mystery. Nobody knows who Mona Lisa is, and nobody can understand the reason for her subtle grin. The mystery surrounding the Mona Lisa is very similar to the mystery surrounding ‘Visions of Johanna’.
The main subject of the song, Johanna, has been debated over the years following its release, with Dylan never fully clarifying whether the fictional character was based on any particular real-world person. It is often suggested that Johanna was based on fellow singer-songwriter Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had been in a relationship a year or so earlier. Baez was a key collaborator during Dylan’s early rise to fame. She famously brought Dylan on stage with her in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival. At this time, Baez was a better-known star than Dylan was and so this pivotal show helped to elevate Dylan’s status.
In Baez’s 1975 song, ‘Winds Of The Old Days’, she appeared to have laid claim to being ‘Johanna’. The lyrics read, “A decade flew past her and there on the page, she read that the prince had returned to the stage / Most of the sour grapes are gone from the bough, ghosts of Johanna will visit you there.” Earlier in the song, the repeated line had read, “ghosts of my history will follow me there.”
Further evidence for the link to Baez can be heard in the final verse with the mention of Madonna. Of course, a ‘Madonna’ is the name given to artwork featuring the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in Catholicism. This doesn’t seem out of place in the song, given the other references to museums and art, but the “barefoot Madonna” had also been a nickname for Joan Baez. After a 1959 performance at the Newport Folk Festival, a writer gave Baez the nickname due to her on-stage presence, and the nickname stuck through the 1960s.
As Dylan sings the final few lines of the song, he appears upset that Johanna has now left him: “And Madonna, she still has not showed / We see this empty cage now corrode / Where her cape of the stage once had flowed / The fiddler, he now steps to the road / He writes everything’s been returned which was owed / On the back of the fish truck that loads.”
In these lines, Dylan explains that Madonna has gone and so now “the fiddler” takes “to the road”. It could be derived that Dylan is the fiddler and he explains that now his relationship with Baez is over, it’s time to move on. ‘Visions of Johanna’ could be a song that Dylan used to come to terms with his emotions. Clearly, he still has some remnant lamentation as his “conscience explodes,” and “these visions of Johanna are all that remain.”
Finally, we need to figure out who Louise is. This one is more difficult; if the character does exist in Dylan’s real world, Louise could be Sara, or one of his other close friends at the time of writing, who comes across as a representation of love, understanding and warmth – perhaps a confidante for Dylan helping him overcome his demons. If Louise isn’t reflecting a real person in Dylan’s life, then perhaps she is one of the blurred ‘Visions of Johanna’ or an embodiment of his conscience.
However one might interpret the lyrics in ‘Visions of Johanna’, it is undeniable that the songwriting is a perfect example of Dylan’s talent. The imagery throughout and the convoluted narrative leaves much to the imagination, which is crucial to sound art, just as it was for the Mona Lisa. If Blonde on Blonde is the Louvre, ‘Visions of Johanna’ is the mysterious smiling lady sitting in the Salle des États.