Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word

Tomorrow Joan Baez celebrates her seventy-first birthday. The only thing really great about her is her voice, but what a voice. From the time she appeared as an unbilled artist at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, at age 18, her voice propelled the rise of the modern folk movement. Let’s take the occasion of her birthday to repost one of my favorite YouTube music videos (now with Spanish subtitles!) one more time while it’s still available online.

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, although the Joy of Cooking gals released an old, informal take of the song a few years back on Back To Your Heart.

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.” As it turns out, she seems to have recorded it without his ever finishing it. Dylan’s attitude to the song is “don’t look back,” although Baez recalls him expressing admiration for it when he heard it one time years later on the radio. He had forgotten that he wrote it.

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 suggests that he has come to see the wisdom of the proposition 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 go quite 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. At least that’s how I hear it.

In the video above, Earl Scruggs — he who defined the use of the banjo for bluegrass music — visits Baez at home in California 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 (if unpolished) gem in the Dylan catalogue.

Proper Records has released an expanded two-disc version of her smashing, previously deleted 1995 live recording Ring Them Bells. Among many highlights, it includes an awesomely beautiful version of “The Water is Wide” with several of Baez’s next-generation followers singing harmony. As age has dented the perfection of her “achingly pure” soprano, it has increased in emotional power.

A discordant note detracts from the pleasure of the music. Baez has been a constant advocate of civil rights and non-violence along with a variety of unfragrant left-wing causes for upwards of 50 years. She was on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream speech” at the March on Washington in 1963, and to her credit that was no accident. But she is the kind of advocate of civil rights and non-violence who could visit the totalitarian dystopia of Communist North Vietnam without notable discomfort for thirteen days in December 1972. Baez and her group arrived in Hanoi just in time to catch Operation Linebacker II, the eleven-day bombing of North Vietnam also known as the Christmas bombings. The bombings were more than Baez bargained for. She gives an embittered view of them from the ground in her memoir.

Baez traveled as part of a group hosted by the North Vietnamese propaganda front known as the Committee for Solidarity with the American People. One of the putative missions of her contingent was to deliver mail to the American prisoners of war held by the Communists.

Baez still owes a profound apology to the America prisoners of war for playing along with their captors and giving heart to their tormentors. So far as one can tell from her memoir, she had no clue what she was doing. She never does mention what happened to the mail. But it gets worse. At one point during the bombings (which understandably terrified her), she recalls: “There was much publicity over the first six pilots shot down. What a tiny victory, I thought, as we began to see their faces on posters all over town.” (Hey, I thought she was against violence.) Baez’s memoir was published in 1987. In it she expresses no sober second thoughts or regrets about her sentiments at the time.

By contrast with her “antiwar” (i.e., pro-Communist) buddies, however, Baez found it in herself to sign an open letter to “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam” protesting its political repression in 1979. Her old friends came out of the woodwork to try to stop her, but she persisted. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.

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