Joan Baez recorded Bob Dylan’s “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” for “Any Day Now,” her 1968 double album of Dylan covers. It’s the highlight of the album. Baez owns that song. Dylan himself has never released a recording of it and I’m not aware of anyone other than Baez who has taken a stab at it.
In the D.A. Pennebaker documentary “Don’t Look Back,” Baez can be heard singing the song to Dylan on tour in England in the spring of 1965. Dylan says he’s never finished the song; Baez says he’s finished it “about eight different ways,” and promises to record it if he finishes it. On the evidence of Baez’s memoir And a Voice To Sing With, Dylan wrote the song at Baez’s house in Carmel Valley in the summer of 1964. Baez writes that “Dylan was turning out songs like ticker tape, and I was stealing them as fast as he wrote them.”
In the song the singer resists the statement that “love is just a four-letter word.” He initially overhears the woman — “the friend of a friend of mine” — say it to “the father of her kid.” He thinks the statement is absurd. Over time, however, he seems to have come to believe it himself.
In the closing verse that Dylan leaves off the published lyrics, he meets up again with the woman many years later “with tables turned.” He says he can say nothing to her but that “love is just a four-letter word.” He doesn’t quite go so far as to say he believes it himself, although he’s had experiences that make him understand what she meant. The song seems to belie the statement, the singer saying in his own way that he loves the woman.
In the video above, Earl Scruggs — he who defined the banjo for bluegrass music — visits Baez at home and asks her to play the song for his 1972 special “Earl Scruggs: His family and friends.” Earl takes a solo, as does Earl’s son Randy. It seems to me a special performance of a hidden gem in the Dylan catalogue.