Given all they have in common, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell would get on like a house on fire. Both singers gained prominence on the 1960s’ folk scene and were proponents of the peace-and-love spirit of the time. But it would seem that neither extended these values to each other.
Dylan and Mitchell have both been hailed as voices of their generation. And they’ve enjoyed enormous success through their music, earning a number of accolades along the way. Mitchell, for instance, is the owner of eight Grammys, while Dylan has Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy awards to his name.
But while Dylan and Mitchell are both considered to be among the greatest artists in their field, it’s best to avoid comparing the two. Why? Well, Mitchell in particular has hit out at Dylan on a number of occasions, creating a decades-long feud. And she certainly isn’t one to be messed with.
Both Dylan and Mitchell were born during World War II under different aliases than they would become known for. Dylan – whose birth name is Robert Allen Zimmerman – arrived in May 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. Mitchell, meanwhile, was born Roberta Joan Anderson in November 1943 in Fort Macleod, Canada.
And Dylan and Mitchell were attracted to music from an early age. He took inspiration from rock stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Plus it seems that Dylan was heavily influenced by Little Richard, whose piano-playing style he would channel when performing at his school dances.
Mitchell, on the other hand, first started performing after a bout of illness. After getting polio when she was nine, the youngster began singing for her fellow hospital patients. She later learned to play guitar – teaching herself – and after attending art college soon emerged as one of the top folk musicians of the 1960s and beyond.
Dylan had started performing in bands as a youngster but established himself as a solo artist during his time at the University of Minnesota. It was then that he began performing under the name “Bob Dillon,” singing songs from the country and folk genres. He eventually moved to New York in 1960 where he became a regular on the Greenwich Village music scene.
Even at the start of his career, Dylan was a prolific songwriter. But when his first album was released on Columbia Records in 1962, it contained just two original tracks. It wasn’t until his 1963 record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that the singer showcased his lyrical talents for the first time.
As the 1960s progressed, Dylan was responsible for some of the most memorable folk songs of the era. These included, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And with themes of war, peace, freedom and change in his music, Dylan soon became one of the leading voices in the 1960s’ protest movement.
Mitchell also rose to prominence during the protest movements of the 1960s. And she released her first eponymous album in 1968, just a few years after she’d moved to the United States from her native Canada. The record earned her a Grammy, and over the following years she enjoyed success with songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game.”
But while the music Dylan, Mitchell and their contemporaries were making in the 1960s seemed to be all about love, peace and tolerance, behind the scenes things were much more fraught. For instance, Mitchell later revealed a fierce rivalry between the female singers of the era. And it appeared like her biggest nemesis was Dylan’s former flame Joan Baez.
Dylan first dated Baez in 1963, and the pair were romantically linked for two years. They were quite the celebrity couple of their time, with both parties benefiting from the relationship. Dylan penned some of Baez’s most popular songs, while she gave him huge fan exposure at her gigs. So all good.
But while it seems that Baez was happy to share the spotlight with her then-beau Dylan, Mitchell has claimed that she wasn’t so supportive of her female counterparts. The Canadian songwriter has suggested that there was an intense rivalry between the era’s most popular female artists. And she alleged that this was most felt by herself, Baez, Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro.
In 2008 Mitchell told British music magazine Mojo, “I always thought the women of song don’t get along, and I don’t know why that is. I had a hard time with Laura Nyro also, and Joan Baez would have broken my leg if she could, or at least that’s the way it felt as a person coming out [on to the music scene].” Ouch!
Even so, Mitchell and Baez shared a bill for a number of gigs that were part of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. And the tour had been organized by Dylan, another one of Mitchell’s contemporaries who she’s been outspoken about in recent years. That being said, it’s not clear where exactly the ill-feeling between the two stars stems from.
As we’ve seen from Mitchell’s comments on Baez, she’s not one to mince her words. And her controversial comments on Dylan were given in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times. But he wasn’t the only artist that Mitchell criticized during the chat, as she also took aim at Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Madonna.
Revealing how she’d been accused of being promiscuous during the 1960s, Mitchell said, “If I did someone’s radio show, they [the press] had me sleeping with them.” By contrast, she claimed that “Grace [Slick] and Janis Joplin were [sleeping with] their whole bands and falling down drunk, and nobody came after them!”
But Mitchell didn’t leave her barbed comments there. Calling out the “stupid, destructive way we live on this planet,” the folk singer pointed the finger at another pop star. She scathed to the Los Angeles Times, “Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.”
Yet not all of Mitchell’s thoughts on other musicians were negative. In fact, she only had nice things to say about the late Jimi Hendrix, who she felt was misunderstood. She said of the rock star, “Jimi was the sweetest guy. He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him.”
Speaking of Hendrix’s rock-and-roll antics, Mitchell recalled how he’d told her “‘I can’t stand to do that anymore,’ he said, ‘but they’ve come to expect it. I’d like to just stand still like Miles.’” Reflecting on why Hendrix may have felt unable to change, Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times, “Transitions aren’t easy.”
While Mitchell spoke fondly of Hendrix, her warm sentiments did not extend to Dylan. After the Los Angeles Times interviewer compared her to the singer-songwriter by suggesting they’d both created their own personas by changing their names, she was not impressed at all. In fact, she took the opportunity to attack Dylan’s integrity.
Clearly irked, Mitchell said, “Bob is not authentic at all.” She also accused the musician of being a “plagiarist.” She alleged, “His name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” And in an attempt to squash any comparison between her and her folk contemporary, Mitchell added, “We are like night and day, he and I.”
Yet Mitchell offered no explanation behind her “plagiarist” claim and quickly changed the subject without another word on Dylan. But that wasn’t the last time she attacked the singer in an interview. With that in mind, a feud was seemingly ignited between the famous musicians. So much for the Christmas cards being exchanged.
Plus Mitchell’s comments hit a nerve among fans of Dylan. Because some were confused, given the number of occasions in which the pair had appeared on stage together. But Dylan himself didn’t respond to Mitchell’s claims officially, though he did address more general accusations of plagiarism in a later interview.
That’s because Mitchell isn’t the only person to have accused Dylan of plagiarism. You see, the songwriter has been accused of drawing on the work of other writers in his lyrics. And it’s been suggested that he’s borrowed lines from the works of the poet Henry Timrod and the Japanese author Junichi Saga.
In 2003 the Wall Street Journal pointed out that one lyric from Dylan’s 2001 song “Love and Theft” was similar to a line in a Japanese mobster’s 1995 biography. The book reads, “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded.” Meanwhile, Dylan’s song states, “I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound.”
So during a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine Dylan was asked what he thought about the “controversy.” And rather than denying the borrowed lines, he said, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” Fair enough. But there was more to come.
Inferring that he was being singled out, Dylan added, “It’s true for everybody, but me. There are different rules for me.” Seemingly defending the use of borrowed lines in his songs, the musician added, “As far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront?”
Then taking aim at those – like Mitchell – who accused him of “plagiarism,” Dylan told Rolling Stone, “If you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”
The folk legend continued, “I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”
So perhaps Dylan wasn’t too put out by Mitchell’s criticism, as he appeared to disregard her “plagiarist” claim as nonsense. But that wasn’t the last that we’d hear of Mitchell’s claims. That’s because she addressed the comments she’d made to the Los Angeles Times in a later interview with UNCUT magazine in 2013.
And Mitchell was asked about calling Dylan “not authentic” and “a plagiarist.” But the singer denied that that was what she’d said. She said, “I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that he’s not authentic at all. That is not a word I used.” Mitchell also called the quotes given by the Los Angeles Times, “Journalistic b******.”
But Mitchell admitted to UNCUT, “I did say he’s a plagiarist, and he is.” Explaining why she felt that was true about Dylan, Mitchell claimed, “He was in litigation. It’s not like I outed him. He stole all of his lines out of a Japanese hoodlum’s novel. There was a lawsuit impending, but it got dropped.”
Mitchell then said of Dylan, “He told me ‘I haven’t written a song in years.’ I said, ‘What’re you talking about? Who’s writing them, then?’ He came down to craft. Inspiration doesn’t stay with a lot of artists long, then you’re in the game and you’ve got to sustain it. You notice it – like one-trick wonders or two good albums, then they peter out. To sustain a gift for a long time is rare.”
Alongside questioning Dylan’s songwriting abilities, Mitchell attacked his distinctive singing style in an interview with CBC. But before she got to that, the musician returned to the subject of her Los Angeles Times interview. Claiming that journalist Matt Diehl had twisted her words, she said, “I hate doing interviews with stupid people, and this guy’s a moron.” Yes, she doesn’t seem to ever hold back.
Returning her aim to Dylan, Mitchell added, “I like a lot of Bob’s songs. Musically he’s not very gifted, he’s borrowed his voice from a lot of old hillbillies. He’s got a lot of borrowed things. He’s not a great guitar player. He’s invented a character to deliver his songs. Sometimes I wish that I could have that character – because you can do things with that character. It’s a mask of sorts.”
Despite Mitchell’s moans about Dylan, comparisons continued to be drawn between her and the folk singer. And in a 2014 interview with The Sunday Times newspaper, when asked how she felt about being called “the female Dylan,” the musician pulled no punches. She replied, “I am much more original musically, and a much more original thinker.”
But it would seem that Mitchell’s beef with Dylan wasn’t totally about him. Another extract from the Sunday Times interview suggested that she was frustrated by constantly being underestimated in comparison to male songwriters. She explained, “I’m a woman in a man’s world.”
Mitchell continued, “There are hardly any women in my business. There are oppressive men and exploitative men. Georgia O’Keeffe used to talk about them – men this and men that – too. The men said, ‘You can’t paint New York City’ — she did some fantastic paintings of New York City.”
Returning her focus to the music industry, Mitchell added, “It’s all male-dominant, and you’re always with them. I’m on the road with 21 guys, and I love men’s company, don’t get me wrong. Even when they’re stupid little boys, I still like them. I mean, love the sinner, hate the sin.”