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American Routes Shortcuts: Joan Baez

Joan Baez
American Routes

We go to Bob Dylan’s back pages and hear from American folk singer, songwriter, and activist, Joan Baez, who helped bring Dylan into the spotlight. Baez and Dylan collaborated frequently and briefly became involved romantically. Host Nick Spitzer speaks with Joan Baez about her favorite love ballads, Bob Dylan going electric, and what it’s like to be the subject of songs, known worldwide.

NS: I wonder, is there a single love song over the years that most endures for you?

JB: A single love song?

NS: Or, you know, any one of a number, whether we’re talking some of the old songs from the British / American tradition, or some of Bob Dylan’s songs, some of your songs, some of songs of others…

JB: Well, “Four Letter Word” would come in there, but what I was thinking just before that oddly enough was “Matty Groves,” which is, you know, a murder ballad, as well, but one of the most beautiful love ballads I’ve ever sung.

NS: When you talk about old songs like “Matty Groves” and the old Irish tradition, you’re often getting a song that is an historical time, and there are these characters, but when you’re talking about songs like, “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” or “Love is Just a Four Letter Word,” you’re talking about very interpersonal kind of, here’s I, here’s you and here’s the situation. 

JB: And it’s something universal about it, because everybody relates it to some time in their life. I have not written many songs that have that response. Some people write dozens of them, like Dylan.

NS: I just have to ask if you were around for the infamous, I guess, what, incident with the question of Dylan plugging in.

JB: Oh, yes, what did I call myself in one of my songs? The Autumnal Judge. I was really so inflexible about that.

NS: So which side did you come down on?

JB: I didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe it was some puritanical, Quaker stuff that I didn’t understand what he was doing - well, hell, I’ve never understand anything he was doing, but I didn’t understand what he was doing electrically.  I was always swimming upstream trying to get Bob to be political, which was ridiculous. He gave us our arsenal of music, and I should’ve just shut up and appreciated what he gave us.

NS: Do you ever find it difficult that songs that you’ve written or songs by others involve your own self and your own history and end up being, while they may have been intended as personal statements, they end up being universal statements for people?

JB: What do you mean?

NS: I guess I’m just wondering if you ever feel hurt by the fact that love songs that you might’ve written, or somebody else might’ve written for you end up becoming sort of a broad public stage and the rest of the world gallivants around chasing down meaning?

JB: I don’t think so,

NS: No? 

JB:  I think I’m stable enough

NS: Don’t need to just crawl under the bed covers on that one?

JB: No, that’s heavy on the flattery side.

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