‘If You See Her, Say Hello’: The Women Who Helped Shape Bob Dylan’s Music

If you were to search for an overarching theme to Bob Dylan’s career and, for that matter his life, it would have to be role women have played in his creative process. We grant that poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and the mythos of the mad creative genius has played a large role in the Dylan-verse, coupon closer investigation, the fairer sex’s case quickly separate itself from that of the poets. We must, therefore, argue that Dylan owes a substantial debt to the women in his life for the role they have played in his art.

Like many artists before him, the female sex has both inspired him to unmatched artistic heights and bedeviled him and his art to the depths of Chaucerian-esque like purgatory. While a counter argument of sexism could be easily brought (When hasn’t a man blamed a woman for all his problems), our premise seeks out a much higher ground.

From his second album Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, where then girlfriend Suze Rotolo clutched tightly to the arm of Dylan as they cross a treacherous snow-lined street to the abstract girl next door, aka. Joan Baez, who resides in prime location in ‘Desolation Row,’ infected with the ‘Tombstone Blues,’ whose true identity, at least from his perspective, is hidden by a mask made up of the pain committed by every women through the annals of history to the immortal album, Blood on the Tracks, dedicated to the love of his life Sara, whom he could never remain faithful to no matter how hard he tried, women have shaped the narrative.

As the 1950s dawned, Folk music began its ascent on the radio and record sales among youth. The bucolic society that was portrayed on TV was in truth a rolling thunder of dystopisan contradictions, A second world war had finally just ended and the 18-21 year old segment of the population, too young to fought in the war, but more than old enough to remember its horror and the state in which it had left whole nations, saw more needless bloodshed on the horizon.

Folk music became a tangible vehicle, besides protesting- making music of being more safe, of course, – for the young people. Musical acts such as the Weavers, with Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, and Woody Gutherie would provide the canvas for future artists to color upon.

Namely, Joan Baez.

Discovered by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez was everything the record companies could want out of a Folk artist. She was beautiful, young and talented. An angelic voice that could turn shrill, Baez was the product of a Mexican born father and a Scottish born mother.

Born in 1941, Baez’s childhood would help to shape her life and the causes that she would hold most dear to her heart:

The Baez family converted to Quakerism during Joan’s early childhood, and she has continued to identify with the tradition, particularly in her commitment to pacifism and social issues. While growing up, Baez was subjected to racial slurs and discrimination due to her Mexican heritage. Consequently, she became involved with a variety of social causes early in her career. She declined to play in any white student venues that were segregated, which meant that when she toured the Southern states, she would play only at black colleges.

Headstrong and her own person, Joan wasn’t going to a backseat to anyone, neither boy nor girl. If opportunity makes the strangest bedfellows, then Baez and Dylan’s paths had no choice but to cross. Down on his luck and look for a way into Folk music legitimacy, Baez checked all boxes. Plus, she had the power of a recording contract that gave her a voice. She would drag Dylan to concerts she was giving and then invite him up on stage to sing with her, even though she was advised against doing so by Vanguard Records executives.

Dylan took in all that the scene and she presented, processed it and what came out lit the world on fire. There can be little doubt that a great deal of the language of early Dylan came from Baez and others. They would be left in his dust, however, as his language began to accelerate in its density and purpose. They remained friends to this day but the connection that once was gone.

A 2009 article on the Star website puts us on the scene of the disintegration of the King and Queen of Folk:

It took 44 years, but Joan Baez finally got a public apology from Bob Dylan for the callous way he treated her when he broke up their 1960s love affair. (…) The occasion, and the source of the confession, was the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival of Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, a PBS documentary set for broadcast next month. It was followed by a free mini-concert performance by Baez herself.

The astonishingly candid film pulls back the curtain on a painful chapter of Baez’s life that she had long avoided talking about: her split from Dylan in the spring of 1965, during a British tour where he treated her as excess baggage, refusing to allow her onstage with him.

Though he owed a lot to Baez for helping to put him over with the staid Folk audiences, the Dylan transformation needed other feminine voice to listen to, inspire, and bedevil.

Suze Rotolo, will you enter and sign in, please?

Suze Rotolo holds a distinction among all the women passed through the Bob Dylan universe.

She is the only one to appear on the front cover of a Dylan album. In much the same way as Joan Baez, Rotolo would serve an instructor role more than that of lover. She is the only one to appear on the front cover of a Dylan album. In much the same way as Joan Baez, Rotolo would serve an instructor role more than that of lover.

She would the scope of his knowledge of social activism Dylan more into that. Dylan’s language would benefit from the thoroughly more modern Rotolo. Dylan would incorporate a larger, more perceptive awareness of the present:

Well, I was feelin’ sad and feelin’ blue
I didn’t know what in the world I was gonna do
Them Communists they was comin’ around
They was in the air
They was on the ground
They wouldn’t gimme no peace So I run down most hurriedly
And joined up with the John Birch Society
I got me a secret membership card
And started off a-walkin’ down the road

It was around this time, with Rotolo on the scene, that Dylan began to incorporate into his songwriting, humor.

I pounded on a farmhouse

Looking for a place to stay

I was mighty, mighty tired

I’d come a long, long way

I said, “Hey, hey, in there

Is there anybody home?”

I was standin’ on the steps

Feeling most alone

When out comes a farmer

He must’ve thought that I was nuts

He immediate looked at me

And stuck a gun into my guts

As was the case with Joan Baez, Dylan was blinded by the vision of untold artistry. Language and Logic were poodles who followed faithfully beside her. They crouched at her feet and begged her attention. She was everything Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo wasn’t.

She was Sara.

She would give birth to four little Dylans.

She would be the the inspiration for the love song that made every other love song ever written look like shit in comparison.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who could they get to carry you?Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I put them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace,
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace,
And your basement clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them can think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you?Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I put them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss,
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this,
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?
With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,
Who among them do you think could resist you?Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide.
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm,
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm,
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms,
How could they ever, ever persuade you?Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row,
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go,
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,
Who among them do you think would employ you?
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold,
And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul,
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Dylan’s tumultuous relationship with Sara would ultimately give birth to one of the most lyrically personal albums to ever been produced. Blood on the Tracks finds Dylan at one of the lowest points in his career. Too much of everything land a fed up wife left the singer burned out. He would focus all of his energies on his new album Blood on the Tracks. The Wikipedia entry of the album picks up the story:

“The songs that constitute Blood on the Tracks have been described by many Dylan critics as stemming from his personal turmoil at the time, particularly his estrangement from his then-wife Sara Dylan. One of Bob and Sara Dylan’s children, Jakob Dylan, has said, “When I’m listening to Blood On The Tracks, that’s about my parents.”

Dylan has denied this autobiographical interpretation, stating in a 1985 interview with Bill Flanagan, “A lot of people thought that album pertained to me. It didn’t pertain to me … I’m not going to make an album and lean on a marriage relationship.” Informed of the album’s popularity, Dylan told Mary Travers in a radio interview in April 1975: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean … people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” Addressing whether the album described his own personal pain, Dylan replied that he didn’t write “confessional songs”. However, on the live At Budokan album, Dylan seemingly acknowledges the autobiographical nature of the song “Simple Twist of Fate” by introducing it as “Here’s a simple love story. Happened to me.”

Blood on the Tracks contain some of Dylan’s most personal songs. Most of the songs on the album contain such sheer, naked and raw emotion with no flippancy, a rarity in the Dylan canon. For the longest time, Dylan denied the album was about his relationship with Sara, a claim the most casual fan could bat aside. When he has written about Sara, a totally different Dylan appears:

‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’:

“With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

‘If You See Her, Say Hello’:

“We had a falling-out

Like lovers often will

And to think of how she left that night

It still brings me a chill

And though our separation

It pierced me to the heart

She still lives inside of me

We’ve never been apart

Tortured brilliance

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