Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. | Rowland Scherman, National Archives
By Joe Livernois
Joan Baez melted into the Monterey Bay landscape like an old neighbor in the early 1960s. For a while there, she and Bob Dylan could be found in all the right places — or the wrong places, depending on your groove.
Baez, a ground-breaking folk singer with a silky voice and the fierce heart of a social activist, had founded her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence over the objections of Carmel Valley’s pearl-clutching neighbors. They feared the Institute would destroy property values by attracting beatniks, bohemians and bearded intellectuals. Moms and dads weren’t happy to see them infecting the local culture with their screwball ideas, but the kids were cool with it.
But kids don’t run the world. So about 450 neighbors around Miramonte Road signed a petition and stormed the Board of Supervisors, demanding the Institute be shuttered. An attorney representing the fuddy-duddies famously cried that the Institute would be “detrimental to the peace, morals and general welfare of Monterey County,” adding that a school advocating for peace would destroy the image of Carmel Valley. In 1965, the Board of Supervisors ultimately voted 3-2 to issue a permit for the school.
The Institute drew national attention, often as an example of how California and the “Left Coast” was being overrun by “fruits and nuts.” The snobs in New York, ever dismissive of any cultural phenomenon that didn’t arise east of the Hudson, laughed it off. Essayist Joan Didion included an essay she wrote about Baez and the Institute in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” In that withering critique, Didion described the 24-year-old Baez in 1966 as “a personality before she was entirely a person and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her.” Didion’s chapter about Baez in “Slouching” was titled “Where the Kissing Never Stops,” and it refers to the Institute as “a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer, a place where everyone can be warm and loving and share confidences.”
The Baez-Dylan duet in Monterey in 1963 was the start of something big and romantic, an event with lasting implications.
Baez first heard Dylan perform at Gerde’s Folk City in 1961, but the two didn’t meet until 1963 at Boston’s Club 47. Dylan was an unknown kid from the Midwest with a penchant for barbed wit infused with penetrating insight. He was, Baez was to write famously, the “unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond.” He was the focus of her attention and she introduced him to the big wide world.
Not long after they met, Dylan got an invitation that propelled him from obscurity: a slot on the Ed Sullivan Show on May 12, 1963. Sullivan was the highest-rated variety show in the nation at the time. Dylan was primed to perform his song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which took dead aim at the ultra-reactionary conservative organization of the period that espoused the sort of political rhetoric which, some would argue, has recently been normalized in the United States. Sullivan apparently had no problem with the song when Dylan did it at rehearsal, but a worried CBS executive asked Dylan to either do another song or replace some of the lyrics. Dylan refused, and walked off the set.
Six days later, on May 18, 1963, Dylan arrived at the Monterey Folk Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds for his first-ever West Coast performance. He took the stage and was able to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” along with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War.” He ended his set when Baez joined him for “With God on Our Side.”
The John Birch song was a satire, of course, and attendees at the Monterey festival who bought the official program got a look at Dylan’s bio. “When you tour with the carnival at age fourteen playing piano and guitar, you’re bound to learn a lot of life, land and of music,” read the program. “… The songs he writes (often topical parodies or talkin’ blues) and sings relate to what’s [sic] he’s heard and seen in America … Plays jazzy blues piano, guitar and harmonica (often both at once).”
That three-day festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds featured a stellar folkie lineup, including Doc Watson, The Weavers, The New Lost City Ramblers, The Dillards and Peter, Paul & Mary. Also appearing were The Wildwood Boys, a nice little quartet featuring Jerry Garcia on banjo, guitar and vocals. (According to some who remember such things, Garcia participated in an amateur banjo competition at the festival, placing second.)
In July 1963, Dylan performed two duets with Baez at the Newport Folk Festival. By then they were an item, and Dylan joined her on her August tour. “I was getting audiences of up to 10,000 at that point, and dragging my little vagabond out onto the stage was a grand experiment,” she told an interviewer. As the Queen of Folk, her endorsement played a big role in Dylan’s rise to success.
Dylan was obviously smitten. “Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Dylan once said. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress.”
And if you happened to be in a local coffeehouse on the Monterey Peninsula at the right time, you might have been able to hear the two of them together. That happened to Kira Godbe when she walked into the Palace Coffee House on Cannery Row one day. “They totally played it like they were just two normal people who went up on stage and played a little music,” said Godbe, a photographer from Monterey County. “No band — no audience really — just a small coffeehouse.”
The two went in different directions by 1965, apparently the result of some personality clashes during a tour they did in England. But their lives and their love remains the stuff of legend. “Diamonds and Rust,” written by Baez about a decade after they split, is a bittersweet tribute to their relationship. And for a time she joined up with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, where she can be seen in a funky, sexy dance in the Martin Scorcese film. She also appeared in Dylan’s 1978 four-hour film “Renaldo and Clara,” cast as The Woman in White. The film had been shot during the Rolling Thunder Revue’s tour across New England and Canada.
Eventually, Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence shut down and Baez moved to the Bay Area. Her career continued until earlier this year, when she released a final album and performed her final show in Barcelona. Dylan remains one of the touchstones of American music, still playing huge shows around the world.
Dylan returned to Newport in 1965 and offended the folkies, electrifying half of the audience and electrocuting the other half. And on Aug. 21, 2010, Dylan returned to the Monterey Fairgrounds, this time as a headliner backed by a hard-rockin’ band that drew at least 10,000 fans. By all accounts, Dylan was alive and lively and witnesses will say it was one of the better shows staged along the Central Coast.
But the Baez-Dylan duet in Monterey in 1963 was the start of something big and romantic, an event with lasting implications. It was, according to rock journalist Ben Corbett, “the beginning of one of popular music’s most legendary stage partnerships.”
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.