WUMB’s Saturday morning radio show Highway 61 Revisited devoted its four hours yesterday to a celebration of Mr. Bob’s birthday today. Host Albert O played songs written by Dylan nonstop. Given the limits imposed by applicable law, he filled out the show with cover versions. It was an illuminating exercise. The variety of artists to have covered Dylan is wide. The Band, Solomon Burke, the Byrds, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Glen Campbell, Cher, the Clancy Brothers, Eric Clapton, Judy Collins, Shawn Colvin, Elvis Costello, the Country Gentlemen, King Curtis — well, you can see what I mean even before we hit names beginning with the letter D.
Perhaps the most important of the artists to have covered Dylan in this alphabetical range is Joan Baez, who drew attention to him and insisted on his importance when she was all the rage and he was trying to make a name for himself. After Dylan had made it, Baez took a timeout to record a double album of his songs. 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 in a hotel room during his tour of 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, the great Earl Scruggs — he who defined the use of the banjo in bluegrass music — visits Baez at home and asks her to play the song for his 1972 special Earl Scruggs: His Family & Friends. Scruggs takes a solo, as does Earl’s son Randy. It is a memorable performance of a hidden gem in the Dylan catalogue. (I have updated this post to add the first two paragraphs but adapted the rest from a 2007 post.)