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Some time in the mid-1970s Joan Baez received a phone call from Bob Dylan, a conversation that she transmuted into her song “Diamonds and Rust”. The lyrics move between her current feelings of resentment for Dylan and the headiness of their love affair a decade earlier. “Speaking strictly for me,” she sings, “we both could have died then and there.”
“Then and there” included a joint performance at the Philharmonic Hall in New York on Halloween 1964. The trajectory of Baez and Dylan’s artistic relationship had gone from his being her guest at concerts to her being his. “Going to do one of Bob Dylan’s earliest songs”, she said, before singing “Silver Dagger”.
The song is not, of course, by Dylan. It dates back to long before his birth, perhaps to Victorian England. In it, a young woman rejects a lover’s advances by pleading her mother’s implacable opposition and her weaponry — “in her right hand, a silver dagger”. The narrator’s absent father is at once “a handsome devil” and an object lesson in not trusting men: “He’s got a chain five miles long/ And on every link a heart does dangle/ Of another maid he’s loved and wronged . . . ” Originally, it began with the lover’s enticements to elope. By the time Baez used it to open her first album, in 1960, it had shed this introduction and began in medias res with “Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother.” The stretching intervals and sustained notes were a perfect showcase for Baez’s clear soprano and masterly vibrato.
On stage with Dylan four years later, the purity of her voice was challenged by Dylan’s wheezing harmonica, which nags around the singing like an importunate lover cajoling and mocking. Men, sang Baez, will “tell you wicked, lovin’ lies/ The very next evening, they’ll court another/ Leave you alone to pine and sigh.” Although the song was not by Dylan, that night, it seemed very close to being about him. Baez apart, he had just ended his relationship with Suze Rotolo and may already have been romantically involved with Sara Lownds, whom he would marry the following year.
For Baez, “Silver Dagger” was first an introduction and, later, the hint of something ending. Other singers have used it to mark new beginnings. By the end of the 1990s, Dolly Parton had become a caricature of herself. She dug herself out of this rut with a trio of Appalachian folk albums, starting with The Grass Is Blue. At its centre is “Silver Dagger”, sung with an intensity that sounds almost possessed. The banjo and dobro are as hard as spear-tips, and the bluegrass fiddle dances through an ornamented cadenza.
The English folk singer Mary Hampton used to present her wares on home-recorded CDs with handfolded lyrical inserts as intricate as origami, passed around like Samizdat. One of these recordings, Book One: Six Songs of Refusal, begins with “Silver Dagger”. By contrast with Parton’s all-guns-blazing pomp, this is as quiet as if Hampton were whispering inside this listener’s head, or her own. Violin and viola steal in to offer an unsettling chorus.
The song can survive a modern setting as well. In the hands of Saint Etienne, it was renamed “Like a Motorway”. Amid pounding synthesisers, throbbing sequencer lines and drum machine breakdowns, Sarah Cracknell sings a tale of lost love with familiar characters to the familiar tune. “He said her skin smelled just like petals/ Said stupid things he knew she’d like.” The narrative extends to reveal what happens when the lover fails to heed the warning. “I wish that he just left me/ He’d be alive, alive tonight.” Did the mother wake, this time? Over the coda, over and over again, Cracknell sings: “He’s gone, he’s gone.”
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photographs: Getty Images; Stephen Sweet/Rex