Nearly every Halloween, my handsome but sometimes clueless partner comes up with ideas for a couple’s costume. I put the kibosh on his suggestion for this year-Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
He’d found a messy brown-haired wig in the attic along with an abandoned guitar, put them on, and played some duets the couple sang together. “Hey, you look like Joanie. We can borrow a guitar. I know you have some 60s earrings. Come on—it will be fun,” he said.
Yeah, it would have been. But I remember reading about the couple’s breakup and how Joan got an apology from Dylan forty-four years later. And she still shed tears over him. No thanks.
In 1961, Joan Baez met Bob Dylan, a little-known singer/songwriter, in Greenwich Village. Joan was a pivotal force in helping Dylan gain his footing in the thriving folk scene. She invited him to share her stage and tour with her at every opportunity, performing folk songs together.
Joan became an international phenomenon after debuting at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Blessed with a distinctive soprano voice, she sang soulfully about social justice, civil rights, and non-violence. The press treated her as the Virgin Mary of political activism.
Considered the king and queen of folk music, Bob and Joan were one of the most talked-about young couples of the decade.
In the documentary by Mary Wharton, A Voice to Sing With, Joan shared, “I was crazy about him. We were an item, and we were having a wonderful time.” But sadly, the romance fell apart.
Bob Dylan, an adventurous and experimental musician, wrote ballads and poetic rock hymns that earned him a reputation as the ultimate troubadour. Dylan embraced topics like the Civil Rights Movement, greed, and war. He wrote protest songs about social conscience. Inspiration for his quintessential numbers, ripped from the headlines, included the plights of the countless confused, accused, misused, and worse. From The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll to All along the Watch Tower to Mr. Tambourine Man.
He fought against being grouped in a genre or remembered for the last song he wrote. He was also aware the youth of America looked to him as someone they could turn to for answers during those turbulent years. Through his songs, he could help create a new world. That’s why Joanie hounded him to stay focused on political activism. But Dylan was not comfortable in that constricting and frightening role.
Contemplating thematic material and inspiration for his next opus, he listened to all kinds of music and kept up with current events. In 1965, Dylan practiced songs using an electric guitar and planned to incorporate the instrument into a set at the Newport Folk Festival. The attendees, avowed purists of traditional ballads and simple accompaniments, had their hearts set on hearing their favorite artist play.
Bob played his opening set, lulled his audience with the magic of his music for forty-five minutes. In the second half of the show, he came out with the electric guitar and played Maggie’s Farm.
The fans’ anger was visceral. They booed. The audience’s disapproval was not so much music criticism as a sense of betrayal.
Pete Seeger was incensed—Joan, dismayed, at the turn of events.
Following the disastrous concert, Bob took his tour to Europe. Joan, part of Dylan’s entourage, used the opportunity to speak against the Vietnam war, promoting peace, love, and nonviolent protests. She wanted Dylan to resume his place alongside her and intended to push him.
In Baez’s memoir, “And a Voice to Sing With,” she said promoter Bill Graham had initially promised her equal billing and the chance for a Dylan duet every night.
Yet, that’s not how it all happened. Baez’s name was in tiny print on the posters for the events. Whether it was the promoters, venue owners, or Dylan’s security guard that wouldn’t let her speak to her friends, they showed her disrespect throughout the tour. He did not even invite her to sing with him on stage.
Joanie was getting the cold shoulder.
Why? She was famous before him and instrumental in his success. They were together, collaborating, and recording. She was Dylan’s champion and lover.
Perhaps someone crossed boundaries or Dylan changed his mind. Pennebaker was filming Dylan for the classic Don’t Look Back documentary and Joan was part of the package—until she wasn’t.
But Dylan ignored Joan’s attempts to control him by distancing her in a hurtful way. According to a Rolling Stone article, he looked at her with disdain and treated her “like baggage.”
After the awkward backstage encounter with Dylan, Joan left. What happened at that infamous 1965 British road trip was all caught on camera in Pennebaker’s documentary.
Dylan returned to the U.S. in a funk amidst rumors he got hooked on drugs. A motorcycle accident near his home increased the speculation because he dropped off the radar for the next eight years. During that time, he got married, had kids four kids, and, little Joanie, forgotten.
Forty-four years later, while waxing poetic about Joan’s voice, singing, and songwriting to an interviewer, he apologized for the breakup, explaining his treatment occurred during a tumultuous period in his life. It was unfortunate she got caught in the crosshair; he didn’t want to taint her with his messy career. “I feel very bad about it,” Dylan said. “I was sorry to see our relationship end.”
When Joan heard the apology, her eyes grew teary. She admitted she probably pushed him away by trying too hard to have him join her in the many social causes she pursued.
Their story is as old as time. Joan loved Bob and was more invested in the relationship than him. He was her heartache and joy. She couldn’t deal with the man who was lost in the haze of drugs and froze her out of his life.
Despite the ugly breakup, the woman inspired Bob to write several songs about her, Just Like a Woman, Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word, Visions of Johanna, just to name a few.
Fast forward ten years, Dylan invited Joan to join the Rolling Thunder Revue, a 1975–1976 concert tour by Bob Dylan with many musicians and collaborators put together by Martin Scorsese (Netflix.)
In 2019, Baez retired from performing and channeled her efforts into painting and drawing, creating art with a social conscience. Her notable works include The Mischief Makers, depictions of activists, civil rights leaders, artists, and others who have fought oppression and injustice. Dylan was among the motley crew as was her former husband, David Harris. David was a Mischief Maker because he went to prison for draft evasion.
While working on Dylan’s portrait, she chose a photo from his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home. She named the piece Baby Blue, after It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, one of the album’s songs.
As she painted his image, their music played in the background. The hurt and resentment slipped away, replaced by gratitude to have been around to sing with him, no matter how it had ended.