The Words Have Just Crawled Down My Sleeve and Come Out On the Page

Joan Baez? Phillip L. Berman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist who is crafting a powerful song, poem, or story may feel a lack of control. The mind and body are simply operating as a channel for the emergence of the work. A songwriter once made this point by saying something like:

The lyrics moved down my arm and came out on the page.

Would you please help me to find out precisely what was said and who said it?

Quote Investigator: The activist singer-songwriter Joan Baez wrote a statement of this type in the 1985 book “The Courage of Conviction” which contained essays from a variety of influential figures. The editor Phillip L. Berman explained the blueprint for the collection: 1

I invited prominent men and women from all walks of life to answer the questions “What do you believe?” and “How, emphasizing your occupation(s), have you put those beliefs into action?”

The essay by Joan Baez discussed her motivations and her inspirations: 2

For me, there is no separation between my spiritual and metaphysical beliefs and my ideological and political beliefs. When I’m trying to decide what direction to take in my life, for example, I go to a Quaker meeting and wait for direction—or perhaps it would be better to say search for direction.
. . .

Whether it is political action or artistic creation, it must be the same process. It seems to me that of those songs that have been any good, I have not had much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The 1992 reference “Treasury of Women’s Quotations” edited by Carolyn Warner included an entry for the quotation. The passage was slightly different. The phrase “have not had much” was changed to “have nothing much”: 3

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.
Joan Baez

In 2006 “Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said” included an entry for the remark. The version given matched the 1992 instance in the “Treasury of Women’s Quotations”, and Baez received credit. 4

In conclusion, Joan Baez deserves credit for the passage she wrote in the 1985 book “The Courage of Conviction”. A slightly different version of the passage has entered circulation. Baez may have authored both versions, but currently the 1985 version has the best evidentiary support.

Image Notes: Illustration of guitar together with musical notes from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. He mentioned the second version of the quotation and the attribution to Joan Baez. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations organized by topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1985, The Courage of Conviction, Edited by Phillip L. Berman, Section: Introduction, Start Page xiii, Quote Page xiv, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1985, The Courage of Conviction, Edited by Phillip L. Berman, Section: Joan Baez (born 1941), Start Page 14, Quote Page 16, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1992, Treasury of Women’s Quotations, Edited by Carolyn Warner, Chapter 1: Ability, Quote Page 3, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: Music, Quote Page 107, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)