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From Blonde On Blonde, this is an intriguing song which, true to everything about Dylan, excites controversy, disagreement, and fantastic interpretations. As if that statement needs any back up, here are a few wide-ranging comments from websites from people offering different meanings. Dylan himself emphatically denied it was a drugs song.
*** Dylan wrote this song while he was dating Joan Baez, but was falling in love with his first wife Sara.
*** In her 1975 song Winds Of The Old Days, Joan Baez seems to be making the case that she is Johanna.
*** In their June 1997 issue, Mojo magazine named this one of their 100 Greatest Psychedelic Classics.
*** I've lived in New York City for the past 15 years and no song comes close to it's melancholy spirit as this one.
*** My theory is that it is about his affair with Sara and Joanne, but he reverses the two. Louise is Joanne and Sara is Johanna. The whole thing is a trick.
*** I named one of my daughters Johanna in appreciation of this song.
*** The jelly faced women, and the night watchman are not connected. Dylan sporadically entered and exited characters through out his writings often at a whim.
*** It is about a young man from the midwest who suddenly finds himself in the big city. He lives communally with other hipsters, as they did in those days. The man is deeply in love with Johanna, he misses her and pines for her... Louise and her lover remind him constantly of his love. Louise literally makes it all too concise and too clear that Johanna’s not here. At first he misses her, and thoughts of her conquer his mind... thoughts of her keep him up all night (past the dawn)... he goes out, sees the hookers (blind man’s bluff with a keychain)... sees the all night girls... these are characters in the streets... the peddlar is just that, a salesman, talking to a rich woman, trying to sell her something, she pretends to be interested (pretending to care for him) you can just walk down a busy street in New York and see all these characters. He goes to a museum... infinity going up on trial refers to the beatniks who discuss art and interpret what it is to them... what separates the greats from the rest... the Mona Lisa is his example of infinite art, so famous, and will be forever. Who is Mona Lisa? it is often debated or put 'on trial'...
*** I always liked Bob Dylan's content more than his process. Many of his lyrics shine. But I didn't understand the foundation of his legend. I just didn't get the hype.
*** This song is about being out of control and questioning everything that you have known. Louise is what he knows but Johanna is something more real. The Night watchmen is asking himself if he’s really insane and the others are really the sane ones.
*** Call me crazy, but I think Johanna represents 'God'.
*** 'Johanna' is indeed an unusual spelling... it's quite similar to 'Hannah', the Hebrew word for grace - though that may mean nothing in itself but some woman who prides herself on her erudition giving her daughter an unusual name.
*** There is a connection with Kerouac's Visions Of Cody not only because of title similarities but also because one of the characters in the book is named Johanna and she is as ephemeral as Dylan's Johanna. The Kerouac-Dylan connection is profound!!
*** Dylan never clarifies, changing his story in every interview and with every question.
*** I've always thought it was a play on Joan of Arc's Visions, The Visions of Johanna and I do think he is thinking about Joan Baez and how he has to tell her he is in love with Sara. thus Visions of Johanna (Joan Baez) were all he could see I dunno thats my take on it.
*** Johanna means Joan in Spanish. Is the title dedicated to Joan Baez?