The story behind “Diamonds and Rust”, a song by Joan Baez, about Bob Dylan

By on April 1, 2024

The story behind the song “Diamonds and Rust” is as captivating as the melody itself—a tale of love, memory, and the bittersweet residue of time. Written by Joan Baez in November 1974 and released in April 1975, the song is a poignant reflection on her storied relationship with Bob Dylan.

File Photo: Joan Baez in performance in Boston, Massachusetts, accompanied by The Indigo Girls, 2013. Used by permission. (Photo Credit: Onstage Media/ Gary Alpert of Deafboy Photography)

The genesis of “Diamonds and Rust” lies in an unexpected phone call Baez received from Dylan, which transported her back a decade to a “crummy hotel” in Greenwich Village, around 1964 or 1965. This call, laden with nostalgia, prompted a flood of memories and emotions that Baez masterfully translated into lyrics. The song juxtaposes the shining moments of their connection (“diamonds”) with the painful realization of its end (“rust”).

They’d had wonderful moments, but in Joan’s view, Bob couldn’t make up his mind about her, always “keeping things vague” – one moment with her thinking they would get married and another, just friends. After splitting, Joan had spent years trying to move on, but he’d call her up out of the blue, from time to time, bringing back complicated emotions (heading straight for a fall.)

Baez has openly acknowledged that the song was inspired by her relationship with Dylan, despite initially telling him it was about her ex-husband, David Harris. The lyrics are a vivid tapestry of their time together, with references that clearly point to Dylan rather than Harris. Lines like “Well, you burst on the scene already a legend / the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” evoke Dylan’s iconic image and the impact he had on the folk scene and Baez’s life. Baez has said that the song is about memories, how that time could turn dark charcoal into diamonds, or shiny metal to rust.

“Diamonds and Rust” became a significant hit for Baez, reaching the top 40 on the U.S. pop singles chart. It also served as the title track for her gold-selling album released the same year. The song’s enduring appeal lies in its raw honesty and the universal experience of revisiting past love—a theme that resonates with listeners even decades later.

The song’s legacy is further cemented by its inclusion in the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, where Baez and Dylan shared the stage once again. In her memoir, “And a Voice to Sing With,” Baez recounts a conversation with Dylan about the song during rehearsals for the tour, highlighting the personal and complex nature of their shared history.

“Diamonds and Rust” stands as a testament to the power of music to capture the essence of human relationships. It’s a Masterpiece, a contradiction to “her poetry being lousy.” This haunting song, like the memories it describes, continues to shimmer with the beauty of what once was.

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