Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentines Day: Earl Scruggs and Joan Baez, "Love is Just a Four Letter Word"

A sublime melding of Earl Scruggs' banjo and Joan Baez' voice. Just beautiful.

If embed fails: video link video link #2. Baez' voice has a three octave range. A generation+ of female singers idolized and imitated her, yet few could stretch themselves over three octaves. Bob Dylan's lyrics work as poetry, yet the shimmering melding of Scruggs' and Baez' talents is the true attraction for me. Other versions of this song - lacking Scruggs and Baez together - do not measure up to this performance. At the end, Baez smiles in pure delight. BTW: Earl Scruggs invented this bluegrass style of banjo music:
Scruggs literally sent bluegrass in the direction it has followed to this day. His banjo virtuosity was an amazing novelty in 1945; today it is a requirement for every bluegrass band. In Country Music U.S.A., Bill C. Malone writes that Scruggs "added a new and dynamic ingredient to the Blue Grass Boys sound, and audiences were bowled over by the boy who, with a shower of syncopated notes, had made the banjo a lead instrument capable of playing the fastest of songs. Here was something new under the sun."

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born in Flint Hill, North Carolina, and raised on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachians. He was one of six children. His father died when he was four, but the family kept itself solvent by farming and performing; two of his sisters played banjo, and his mother played the organ. Earl himself picked up the banjo at an early age, and he imitated the three-finger picking style that was common in his region. In Earl's youth the three-finger style was relatively rare, but it offered several advantages. It had a more fluid sound, was closely tied to fiddle music, and used a G tuning that was more compatible with other stringed instruments. Earl could play the banjo before he entered first grade, and by the age of ten he was devising new "licks" of his own.

Scruggs and Baez were likely filmed for a TV show Scruggs once did called "Earl Scruggs and Friends". I'm unsure if this ever aired. Scruggs' son plays from the couch beside Baez.

The year is 1970. Baez is 29 years old and never more attractive. Her husband, David, recently released from a Texas prison sentence for (intentional and public) draft evasion, plays with Baez' only child. Motherhood has appealingly softened her - as also soft shoulder length hair, playing in the living room of her own home (her dog at her feet), and Scruggs' benevolent Yoda presence. Scott at Powerline:

In the D.A. Pennebaker documentary "Don't Look Back," Baez can be heard singing the song [at 2:50] to Dylan on tour in England in the spring of 1965. Dylan says [at 3:38] 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, 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."

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 seems to have come to believe it 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 quite go so far as to say he believes it, 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.

I think the lyrics are partly a refutation of the significance of starry eyed romantic love, and partly an affirmation of love which grows in the presence of mutual commitment. But, it's likely unwise to delve overdeeply into lyrics from any of Dylan's songs. I think he intends his lyrics to be sincere, yet not chin-scratchingly, mystically deep. Dylan doesn't think he is a yogi.

Baez, at the moment of this performance with Scruggs, has already led a fascinating life. She was born to a Mexican mathematical physicist father and a Scottish mother. The family, blessed with three beautiful daughters, became Quakers when Joan was a small child, and moved frequently, as Baez' father worked on various and prestigious projects (though he refused to work on either The Manhattan Project, or on any project having to do with nuclear weaponry). Wikipedia:
Owing to [her father] Albert's work in education and with UNESCO, the family moved many times, living in different towns across the United States, as well as in England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Middle East, including Iraq, where they stayed in 1951. Joan, at the time only ten years old, was deeply influenced by the poverty and inhumane treatment suffered by the local population in Baghdad. While there, she saw animals and people beaten to death and legless children dragging themselves down filthy streets, begging for money. She later wrote that she felt a certain affinity with the beggars in the streets, and that Baghdad and the suffering of its people became a "part" of her.
Baez found fame in 1958, at age 17. She met Dylan in 1961 in Greenwich Village, becoming his lover after he was originally interested in her sister. Baez put the unknown Dylan onstage during her performances. Her fans would boo him. Their romance lasted two eventful years, and each wrote several songs about the other, including Dylan's lyric "She aches just like a woman, and breaks just like a little girl."

Baez was/is friendly with persons as disparate as Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and the first President of the Czech Republic: Vaclav Havel. Wikipedia:
The early years of Joan's career saw the Civil Rights movement in the United States become a prominent issue. Joan linked arms with Martin Luther King to protect African American schoolchildren in Grenada, Mississippi and joined King on his march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, singing for the marchers in the town of St. Jude as they camped the night before arriving in Montgomery. Her recording of the song "Birmingham Sunday" (written by her brother-in-law, Richard Farina), was used on the soundtrack of "Four Little Girls," Spike Lee's film about the four young victims killed in the bombing of an African American church by racists in 1963. Her performance of "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem written and popularized by Pete Seeger, at Martin Luther King's March on Washington permanently linked her to the song. She would sing it again in Sproul Plaza during the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement demonstrations and at many other rallies and protests.

In 1966, Joan Baez stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and California's migrant farm workers as they fought for fair wages and safe working conditions and performed at a benefit on behalf of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) in December of that year; in 1972, she was at Chavez's side during his 24-day fast to draw attention to the farmworkers' struggle and can be seen singing "We Shall Overcome" during that fast in the film about the UFW, "Si Se Puede" ("It can be done").
In May 1989, Baez performed at a music festival in communist Czechoslovakia, called Bratislavská lýra. While there, she met future president Vaclav Havel, whom she let carry her guitar so as to prevent his arrest by government agents. During her performance, she greeted members of Charter 77, a dissident human rights group, which resulted in her microphone being shut off abruptly. Baez then proceeded to sing a cappella for the nearly four thousand gathered. Havel cited Baez as a great inspiration and influence in that country's so-called Velvet Revolution, the bloodless revolution in which the Soviet-dominated communist government there was overthrown.
In 1969, after husband David was arrested, she performed at Woodstock while pregnant, and shorn, for the first time, of her formerly long hair.

Baez, in Hanoi in Dec 1972, survived the eleven day American "Christmas bombing" of that city. Wikipedia again:
Her [later] disquiet at the human rights violations of communist Vietnam made her increasingly critical of its government and she organized the publication, on May 30, 1979, of a full-page advertisement, published in four major U.S. newspapers, in which the communists were described as having created a nightmare, which put her at odds with a large segment of the domestic left wing, who were uncomfortable criticizing a leftist regime. In a letter of response, Jane Fonda said she was unable to substantiate the "claims" Baez made regarding the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Steve Jobs?! Wikipedia:
She dated Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs during the late 1970s and early '80s. She was a frequent authorized guest in the highly secret lab of the Macintosh project at a time when most Apple employees were refused admission. A number of sources (including biographer Jeffrey Young) have stated that Jobs had considered asking Baez to marry him, except that her age at the time (early 40s) made the possibility of their having children unlikely.
Re British themed Valentines Day: Joan Baez once lived in England; Earl Scruggs has heard of England!

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