Friday, May 15, 2009

Bob Dylan 9: John Wesley Harding

If you’re reading this you’re probably aware that 1967 was the year of psychedelia, when even bands who should have known better took the example set by Sgt. Pepper and experimented with new sounds to see who could sound the most out there. And with Dylan staying quiet most of the year, whatever he had to say when he got around to it would be really out there, right?
Not quite. Unbeknownst to the public for some time yet, he’d been quietly raising his family, reading the Bible and jamming with the band soon to be known as The Band at their house while the kids were at school. Finally, at year’s end he emerged with his first new statement since the groundbreaking Blonde On Blonde. The short story on the back cover gently poked fun at his messianic status, and the twelve songs on John Wesley Harding—none of which had been tested in the Band’s basement over the summer, as far as we can tell—were as understated as anything he’d ever put out.
In a sign of things to come, his voice already sounds different, with less whine and more croon. And instead of the swirling chaotic imagery of late, he delivered a set of simple three-verse songs that could almost be hymns, most of which have their first line as the title. The eponymous track sets the tone fairly quickly, a tribute to a misunderstood outlaw. “As I Went Out One Morning” tells an apocryphal tale of Thomas Paine, with a suitably mysterious ending. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” seems to be Biblical, except that the saint in question lived centuries after the Bible was written. The original version “All Along The Watchtower” is a nice change for those sick of the Hendrix take, which really is the definitive one. It’s a circular tale, beginning in the third verse. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” tells a tale almost as misleading as the parable on the back cover. Once again he leads us to a seemingly profound message that turns out to be as paradoxical as “Nothing is revealed.” “Drifter’s Escape” is far too charming for a one-chord song; this would also be covered by Hendrix.
“Dear Landlord” is the best track, based around the piano and his own circumstances. It’s a nice change of pace, especially when followed by “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”, which is pretty, and “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”, which is too nondescript. Things pick up with “The Wicked Messenger”, a sharp tune that sports some lines that seem to mean more than they say. The hymns are over by the time “Down Along The Cove” comes around (there’s that piano again), and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a wonderful send-off, and an early clue to the new direction.
John Wesley Harding is understated but excellent. He recorded the songs accompanied only by bass and drums, leading us to wonder if he’d completely ruled out a bigger sound that the Band might have been able to provide. Perhaps he was content to let the songs speak for themselves, and give the “experts” plenty of material to work with, to see where he was at.

Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding (1967)—4


  1. Years ago, I published the observation that ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER is a Mobius Strip of a song. That is, after the third verse, the first verse would logically continue the song, and so on, into infinity.

  2. Makes sense to me. Where can I see this published?