Love is just a four-letter word

Yesterday was the sixty-eighth birthday of pacifist folkie Joan Baez. She has combined mostly misguided politics with a high level of art from her first appearance on the scene at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959.

In December 1972 Baez traveled to Hanoi as “a guest of a North Vietnamese group called the Committee for Solidarity with the American People.” (I’m quoting from her 1987 memoir And A Voice to Sing With.) The group she was invited to join included former Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor and would, among other things, “deliver Christmas mail to the POW’s in Hanoi.”

Baez’s group got caught in the Christmas bombing of Hanoi that more than anything else brought cheer to the POW’s and resulted in their ultimate release. In her memoir, however, Baez writes that the Nixon administration had “completely overstepped the boundaries of everyone’s sensibility, except the extreme right wing and the idiots.” There is not much that can be said in extenuation of the stupidity of her politics.

Included among the highlights of her long career is her work with Bob Dylan. Baez recorded Dylan’s “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” for “Any Day Now,” her 1968 double album of Dylan covers. It stands out on 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, 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, 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 made the banjo a serious instrument — visits Baez at home and asks her to play the song. Earl takes a solo, as does Earl’s son Randy Scruggs (I think that’s Randy). It seems to me a special video of a song that is both intriguing and beautiful.

UPDATE: Reader Jon Stein asks me to add the link to the compact disc that includes “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” as well as other songs recorded for the 1970 PBS special on Scruggs. The compact disc is the twofer “Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends/Nashville Airplane.” Reader Dick Halftery writes that my esteem for Scruggs shortchanges Eddie Peabody. Reader Sam Shakespeare comments on Baez “as a Vietnam vet and a Joan Baez fan.” He writes:

Of course her actions during the war were despicable. But I think that after we cut off military aid to the South Vietnamese following the ’74 elections with the takeover of Congress by left-wing Democrats and the resulting genocide in Indochina (thanks for the three million dead, John Kerry), Joan Baez was one of the very few, maybe only, “artists” who supported the Communists during the war but called for protests against them afterwards. Naturally she got no post-war anti-genocide protest support from her fellow “peace” advocates.

Which is why I described Baez’s politiics as only “mostly misguided.”

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