Watch Joan Baez Endearingly Imitate Bob Dylan (1972)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­sive 55-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly-Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

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 and/or watch his films here.

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