By the fall of 1972 Bob Dylan had been living largely outside of the public eye for six very long years. There hadn’t been a new studio album since 1970’s New Morning, giving his fans little more to chew on a handful of fresh tracks for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II and the “George Jackson” single the following year. The Vietnam War was winding down by this point, but the protest movement was still going strong and they longed for a leader of Dylan’s stature. The fact he moved away from topical songs in 1964 and had never uttered a single word against the war didn’t seem to matter much to them.
Joan Baez was so desperate to see her former singing partner get back into the political sphere that she addressed him directly by song on “To Bobby” from her 1972 LP Come from the Shadows. “You left us marching on the road and said how heavy was the load,” she sang, “The years were young, the struggle barely had its star/ Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?/They’re crying for you /See the children in the morning light/ Bobby they’re dying.”
Dylan was living in a West Village townhouse at this point, just a couple blocks away from the coffee houses he frequented in the early 1960s, and his address was well known. Deranged fans camped out on his doorstep, and A.J. Weberman infamously went through his garbage before getting into a physical altercation with the singer. “Like these flowers at your door and scribbled notes about the war,” Baez sang. “We’re only saying the time is short and there is work to do/And we’re still marching in the streets with little victories and big defeats/But there is joy and there is hope and there’s a place for you.”
Needless to say, Dylan didn’t appreciate the unsolicited advice. “Joan Baez recorded a protest song about me that was getting big play,” he wrote in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, “challenging me to get with it – come out and take charge, lead the masses – be an advocate, lead the crusade. The song called out to me from the radio like a public service announcement.” The song was hardly a hit, and it’s hard to imagine what radio station Dylan was listening to that played “To Bobby,” but there’s no doubt that it annoyed him.
Three years later she wrote “Diamonds and Rust,” a significantly better song that focused on their personal relationship and her hurt feelings over how it all ended. Radio did play that one, and it gave her career a much-needed boost. Later that year, Dylan asked Baez to join him on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Dylan didn’t write any new protest songs, but at least she got to sing the old ones with him one last time. “To Bobby” never made an appearance in the show.