Who is Johanna in Visions of Johanna?

visions of johanna

Visions of Johanna” is one of Bob Dylan’s most acclaimed songs, appearing on his 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.” The song is famous for its evocative, complex imagery and mysterious lyrics. The “Johanna” referred to in the song has been the subject of much debate and speculation over the years among Dylan scholars and fans.

Like many of Dylan’s lyrics, the identity of Johanna isn’t explicitly clarified in the song, and Dylan himself has not given a definitive explanation. Some have speculated that Johanna might refer to Joan Baez, a fellow folk singer with whom Dylan had a significant romantic and professional relationship. “Joan” and “Johanna” are etymologically related, which lends some credence to this theory.

Others have suggested that “Johanna” could refer to an idealized or unreachable woman, a symbol of desire or longing, rather than a specific individual. The song contrasts visions of Johanna with the more immediate presence of Louise, suggesting a tension between an unattainable ideal (Johanna) and a more earthly, available love (Louise).

However, without a direct explanation from Dylan, these interpretations remain speculative. The beauty of Dylan’s lyrics often lies in their mystery and the breadth of their possible interpretations.

Here my Theories about Johanna

  1. Johanna as Joan Baez: Some fans have speculated that Johanna is a reference to Joan Baez, a fellow folk singer and Dylan’s romantic partner at the time. The names “Joan” and “Johanna” are etymologically related, lending some weight to this theory.
  2. Johanna as an Idealized Woman: Johanna could symbolize an unattainable, idealized woman who contrasts with the more tangible and earthly Louise, another woman mentioned in the song. This interpretation sees Johanna as a symbol of longing or yearning for something out of reach.
  3. Johanna as a Symbol of Artistic Inspiration: Another theory is that Johanna represents the muse or the creative impulse itself. Dylan struggles with these “visions of Johanna” that keep him up at night, which could be read as a metaphor for the restless drive of the creative process.
  4. Johanna as New York City: Johanna might also represent a place, specifically New York City. The song was written during a time when Dylan was transitioning from the folk scene of Greenwich Village in New York to the more electric, rock scene, symbolized by Nashville. The visions of Johanna might represent his nostalgia and yearning for the New York folk scene.
  5. Johanna as a Spiritual Symbol: Dylan’s songs often carry religious undertones, leading some to interpret Johanna as a spiritual or transcendental symbol, possibly representing enlightenment or spiritual awakening.
  6. Johanna as a Reference to a Literary Work: Given Dylan’s well-known love for literature, Johanna could also be a reference to a character in a book or poem that influenced Dylan.

Let’s take a look at the theories on the subject on Expectingrain

> The three most common 'theories' concerning the word 'Johanna' in the
> song seem to be:
> a) It refers to Joan Baez
> b) It relates to 'Gehenna', the Hebrew word for the 'afterworld'
> c) Van Gogh's sister (or was it sister-in-law?)
> d) it refers to someone or something that only Dylan knows

It would appear that Joan Baez thought that 'Johanna' referred to her. In
her song 'Winds of the Old Days', which (in my opinion, anyway...) is about
her somewhat uncertain relationship towards Dylan in the 1970s, she
includes the lyrics: 

'And get you down to the harbour now,
Most of the sour grapes have gone from the bough. 
Ghosts of Johanna will visit you there, 
And the winds of the old days will blow through your hair'.

Read more here:


Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s insane
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
How can I explain?
It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeez, I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

Who is Johanna ? Please write your thoughts on the subject in the comments section.

Research and Article by Cansu Demir


Leave a Reply
  1. One day in 1971, when I was being tourist in Greenwich Village, I saw a clothing store called Johanna’s. I think it was second-hand clothing, and, as I recall, the business had clearly been there for a while. He could have just seen the name, liked it, and used it in a song. That’s a very common way to work.

  2. I have always maintained that “Queen Jane” in that song was JOAN Baez! But I’m not sure that theory holds true for “Visions”?!

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