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(Credit: Rowland Scherman)


The masterpiece that Joan Baez wrote about her breakup with Bob Dylan

When Joan Baez first heard whisperings of some new mystic emergence in the folk scene named Bob Dylan, she was already the figurative Queen. “People had told me about this incredible guy writing these incredible songs,” Baez told the BBC when recalling the first time she laid eyes on him in 1961. “He was just scruffier than I had pictured. He was very scruffy. But what they said about the songwriting, for me, was true.”

Baez, like many others, descended into the bowels of Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village to hear the vagabond with a voice of sand and glue – who had seemingly wandered into New York from the timeless ether of the past to illuminate the future – perform for the first time. “He was not overly impressive,” she wrote in her memoir, And A Voice to Sing With, “He looked like an urban hillbilly, with hair short around the ears and curly on top.” Or as she would later put it in her breakup masterpiece (or rather, her ode to their undying time together) ‘Diamond and Rust’, he was: “The unwashed phenomenon / The original vagabond.”

And as she beautifully extolls in the very next line, Dylan “strayed into [her] arms”. His drift to her sanctimony, however, was a tentative one at first. “Joaney was at the forefront of a new dynamic in American music,” Dylan recalls, explaining how she was a revered presence to be around. “She had a record out that was circulating in the folk circles, I think it was just called Joan Baez and everybody was listening to it, me included, I listened to it a lot,” he declared in the 2009 documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound.

Soon the two monolithic forces would be king and queen and together they helped to shape the future of music. “She had a very unusual way of playing the guitar,” Dylan recalled, “I have never heard anyone play it the way Joaney did, I tried to practice it but I never could get that style down.”

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Her voice proved stirring for him too, “She had that heart-stopping soprano voice, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” But perhaps most importantly during an era when most of the folk wayfarers were clutching the same shared handful of shop-worn tunes, he says: “Her range of songs was very unusual for that time, just the combination of all the things she did which were put together in such a miraculous way.”

Dylan shared this similarly unusual spirit of exalting his own individualism in timeless folk song, and soon he would be the careless master of it. “I was going around stealing his songs. I mean literally ‘Four Letter Word’ he wrote, dropped behind a piano and forgot about. I retrieved it, in my own house and learnt it, and a year later I was singing it and he said, ‘Jeez that’s a good song, where is that from?’ And I laughed, ‘You wrote it you dope!’” Baez recalls. 

(Credit: YouTube)

The couple had assailed the highest peak of artistry. They were extolling virtue and creativity like nobody else in music had before them, and in turn, they heralded the future movements of the 1960s. Everything coalesced, but at the heart of this tessellating force was a humble relationship much like any other loving union. “I adored his music and I adored him, and it was jolly fun driving around the country,” Baez casually puts it, as they weaved a serpentine path around America and the world, steadily planting seeds of change. 

At the height of these shows was the moment that Joan Baez announced him as the saviour of folk music, and in an ironic twist of fate, it was this ever-expanding maelstrom that surrounded him, and the labels that came with it that pushed them apart. In Dylan’s own words: “I was just trying to deal with the madness that had become my career, and unfortunately, she got swept up along, and I felt very bad about it, I was sorry to ever see our relationship ever end.”

Circumstance may have plonked a full stop at the end of their sentence but pitted along the way were poetic moments of pure pillow-propped content that would live on beyond the wiles of life’s whims. As Baez once wrote: “Maybe that afternoon was the closest I ever felt to Bob: his eyes were as old as God, and he was fragile as a winter leaf.” And as Dylan would later proclaim on stage: “Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. A truly independent spirit, nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learnt a lot of things from her. For her kind of love and devotion I could never repay that back.”

This very notion is what makes ‘Diamonds and Rust’ soar amid the pantheon of odes and breakup pines that music has offered up. If Dylan and Baez embodied that folk is about timeless universality, then the pastiche that Baez paints with her stirring epic is something that transcends the specificity contained within and arrives at the sort of allegory that anyone can connect with—even behind a tree long since felled the grass remains greener.

Although the relationship and break-up may have spawned a thousand songs in a nebulous sense, it was this reflection in 1974 that seemed to deal with the end of folks most dazzling couple head-on, without ever being headstrong. This wasn’t lost on Dylan, and he was, in fact, delighted to have been part of the pastures from which the song flowered, no matter if it was nettlesome to hear. “I love that song ‘Diamonds and Rust’, to be included in something that Joaney had written, I mean to this day it still impresses me.”

Whether the snow-covered phone call contained was real or merely an expressionist image to exemplify the tendrils that stretch through the time and distance of the ensuing years has not quite been cleared up. Regardless, the song remains an edifice for the love they shared—a love that had a profound impact on the culture of modern music, to boot. As Dylan said, Baez is as tough-minded as they came, and that fortitude allowed her to dip back into the pains of the past and wring out the beauty in song. The result is both haunting and comforting like the ghost of the past with a message of hope, ultimately, living on the diamonds and rust pastiche that the time erodes but the precious things sustain.