In a new feature on the Deep Roots/Radio 2 blog, we're going to spend some time going in deep -- exploring individual, important folk songs. We're calling it Single Songs (though a catchier title is welcome). Today, Bob Dylan's "To Ramona."
Just like Angelina and Brad, Gwen and Gavin, or Selena and The Biebs, back in the 1960’s Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were a celebrity power couple. They were the king and queen of folk music back when banjos and autoharps were outselling electric guitars and folk songs were all over the hit parade. Here were two twenty-somethings who each had revolutionized folk and protest music -- Baez by interpreting classic folk and labour songs in a way that welcomed the new generation of politically active young people and Dylan by writing a whole new canon of folk songs that challenged you to think as well as act. Back in the early '60s, they were in love and unstoppable. Until it all began to fall apart.
When Joan and Bob got together first, Joan was the much bigger star. Her renditions of such classic folk songs as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Joe Hill" had made her a barefoot icon of the growing politicism of the '60s generation. However, she wanted her growing fans to hear her favourite songwriter, so during her shows she would bring out a friend of hers who was "just getting started singing and writing songs." Bob Dylan. She knew Dylan had something special and she wanted to use her celebrity to show him off. She remembers their meeting here:
But while Joan stayed tied to the dying folk revival, Bob became one of the biggest stars in the world. He was a jumble of contradictions: poetic but refusing to call himself a poet; sang folk songs but refused to call himself a folk singer. The list goes on and on. As Bob started to drift away from the folk revival and towards megastardom, the distance between he and Joan became more and more apparent. They fought publicly and Bob was often downright rude to her in front of friends, fans and other musicians. In this scene from the documentary Don’t Look Back, you see Joan singing one of Bob’s songs and Bob ignores her and keeps typing to himself.
In Bob’s folk waltz "To Ramona," you hear Bob Dylan acknowledge their diverging lives for the first time in song. He sings about her idealism and how it will eventually lead to her downfall ("It grieves my heart, love/To see you tryin' to be a part of/A world that just don't exist"), her struggle to remain approachable and "common" whilel trying to keep her privacy ("I've heard you say many times/That you're better 'n no one/And no one is better 'n you/If you really believe that/You know you have/Nothing to win and nothing to lose") and his inability to help her in any of her struggles ("I’d forever talk to you/But soon my words/They would turn into a meaningless ring/For deep in my heart/I know there is no help I can bring"). When you listen to the song, you get to hear the struggles of being one of the most famous couples in the world. And beyond that, you hear first hand, the story of a couple growing apart.
Oh, and the title? In Joan Baez’s biography And a Voice to Sing With, she explains that Dylan would often call her Ramona, and write letters to her addressed “To Ramona” that would try and talk her out of her political convictions. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Baez’s career if she had taken Dylan’s advice and abandoned political music and the folk revival. But the song strikes a chord beyond careers, it tells the age-old story of growing distance between you and someone else, as you get older.
Check out the song's complete lyrics here.