Joan Baez was already heralded as the “Queen of Folk” by the time Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan arrived in New York City. Many things brought him to the burgeoning folk scene there, but Baez was the siren who called to a young Dylan through his television set long before he met her. He was smitten. He would write much later in Chronicles, Vol. 1, that she had “A voice that drove out bad spirits... she sang in a voice straight to God... Nothing she did didn’t work.”
And for a couple of years they became collaborators, partners, lovers, and folk royalty. It was Baez who introduced a then-unknown Dylan to the crowds at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. But soon, fortunes changed: Dylan became an unstoppable cultural force and Baez would be on the receiving end of several betrayals, artistic and otherwise.
An excerpt from an Earl Scruggs documentary, the cute video above, shot by David Hoffman and posted on his YouTube channel, shows Baez imitating Dylan after she sings a verse of “It Ain’t Me Babe”. (She does this while holding her baby and trying to get it to drink from a pitcher, too.) A 16-year-old Ricky Skaggs—not looking anything like a teenager—accompanies her on guitar.
For one thing she does a crackin’ good Dylan impression. The other is watching the emotion behind that impression—there’s a lot of history there, a bit of sadness, a bit of nostalgia, nothing bitter or mean, but evidence of a shared life together that once existed.
By this time in 1972, Dylan’s voice had matured. The crooner on Nashville Skyline was a different person from the man on Blonde on Blonde, all those rough corners sanded off and the register deepened. Yet when anyone imitates Dylan, they head on back to those mid-‘60s albums, the “braying beatnik” as writer Rob Jones calls him. (Jones posits that Dylan has had eight particular voices during his career.)
Remember, as Slate’s Carl Wilson points out, when Dylan first started out, he was commended for his voice, and was considered “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded,” by Robert Shelton, who wrote the copy on the back cover of Dylan’s 1962 debut album. He came from a tradition of both Woody Guthrie and Howlin’ Wolf, and several other idiosyncratic singers who didn’t sound like Frank Sinatra. (Although Dylan’s last few projects have been covers from the Great American Songbook.)
Dylan himself, in a 2015 award acceptance speech, turned his ire towards critics of his voice:
Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. [Why] don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? … Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters? … “Why me, Lord?” I would say that to myself.
Fast forward to the present and Dylan’s voice shows the wear of years of performing and years of indulgence. It’s gravelly and phlegmatic, smoky and whiskey-soaked, but Wilson points out: “Even the rasp and burr of his late voice, several keen listeners have noticed, is very much like a more genuine copy of the old-bluesman timbre he pretentiously affected as a young man. It’s almost like this is what he’s been aiming toward.”
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.