"You see, that album was all I could come up with musically. It's the best I could have done at the time. I didn't intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound. I would have liked a good sound, more musical, more steel guitar, more piano. More music. At that time so many people were into electronics, and I didn't know anything about that. I didn't even know anybody who knew it. I didn't sit down and plan that sound." Bob Dylan 1968.
The December 1967 release of "John Wesley Harding" was up to that point, the biggest change of musical direction that Bob Dylan had undertaken. Coming eighteen months after it's predecessor "Blonde on Blonde," this stripped down minimalist album surprised many, but it also indicated that Dylan would always be a leader and not a follower. The gap in Dylan's recording career was attributed at the time to a motor-cycle accident, but is now regarded as the grasping of an opportunity to re-evaluate his life style. During that period, the world had turned psychedelic, was in the midst of the so-called summer of love, acid trips and freak-outs were everywhere and Woodstock was just around the corner. The Beatles had released "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and The Rolling Stones had responded with "Their Satanic Majesties Request." On the American west coast, "Surrealistic Pillow" was launching Jefferson Airplane and their fans into the stratosphere, while other acid bands The Doors and The Grateful Dead were following suit. Into this came the album that Robert Shelton described as "...Dylan whispering in a climate of shout and scream," with its stories of cowboys, outlaws and drifters that is perhaps Dylan's most underrated classic. Perhaps significantly, he was critical of the Beatles album, saying that he found it "...very indulgent" and "...didn't think that all that production was necessary" At the same time, he knew what sound he was looking for, "I heard the sound that Gordon Lightfoot was getting with Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey, I'd used (them) both before, and figured if he could get that sound, I could," but admitted, "We got a different sound...," and what a different sound it was. Although Dylan would release one more album in the sixties (the lightweight "Nashville Skyline" eighteen months later) he had in effect left that decade behind.
The character of the opening song (Hardin was a nineteenth century gunslinger) has a gratuitous "g" added to his name for some reason best known to Dylan himself, and is romanticised in characteristic Dylan fashion as an outlaw with a good side. Typically we learn little about why he was "...a friend to the poor" or why "...he was never known/To hurt an honest man," as this Robin Hood like character goes about his business. Unlike many of his other outlaw heroes, Dylan chooses to be non specific about Harding's deeds or motivations, instead painting an abstract picture of a man who was "...always known to lend a helping hand." The myth-making continues to the end of the song where we are told that Harding could never be tracked or chained down, because "He was never known /To make a foolish move." The real Hardin was in fact shot down in 1895 aged thirty-eight. The song, and particularly the final verse has a rushed feeling to it, and Dylan explained that he had intended to write a "...really long ballad" but lost interest "...(but) it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse and I recorded that."
"As I Went Out One Morning" is a wonderful piece of writing the depth of which is hidden in its ostensible simplicity. The opening line is something of a verbal cliché in English folk song terms (Richard Goldstein writing in The Village Voice said that Dylan "...confronts a cliché the way a butcher eyes a chicken") as is the odd use of the archaic "damsel." There is a sinister undertone to the encounter with the chained damsel who "...meant to do me harm" and a role reversal of the girl in chains being the aggressor or the captor. "Depart from me this moment" demands our narrator, but he is in grave danger of being seduced by her "I will secretly accept you/And together we'll fly south," as she is the embodiment of a society in chains, the absolute antithesis of freedom. The (literal or metaphorical) arrival of Tom Paine shifts the focus as the libertarian and free-thinker defuses the situation and apologises for it "I'm sorry sir, he said to me/I'm sorry for what she's done." With a running time of under three minutes this is one of Dylan's shorter masterpieces, and a song that is often overlooked.
Ambiguities abound in "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," one of the least accessible songs on the album. John Herdman in 1982's Voice Without Restraint (which takes it's title from the lyrics of this song) says that the songs on this album are "...constructed in such a way as strenuously to resist interpretation" and that is particularly true here. St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was not a martyr in the true sense of the word, and some of Dylan's images in this song are very strange, "Tearing through these quarters" and "...a blanket underneath his arm/And a coat of solid gold" are in keeping with the dream-like feel of the song, as is "Alive with fiery breath." But "Oh, I awoke in anger/So alone and terrified" in the final verse suggests a nightmare rather than a tranquil dream. Is the glass at the end of the song a window or a mirror (one of Dylan's most often used images) in which he sees his own frailties reflected? Not an altogether satisfactory song and like many on the album it raises more questions than it answers.
"All Along The Watchtower," which many regard as the high point of the album, perfectly illustrates Dylan's ability to create powerful images while employing a masterly economy of words. The feelings of menace created by the opening exchange between the joker and the thief "There must be some way out of here..." continues throughout the song, but Dylan does manage a sly dig at corporate money-men "Business men they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth" (he was re-negotiating a contract with CBS at the time). The sense of foreboding builds with lines like "So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late" right up to the abrupt climax "Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl" with its apocalyptic overtones. "All Along The Watchtower" proved to be the most enduring song on this album, perhaps partly due to Jimi Hendrix's (very different) version, which Dylan had great praise for. It also became the only song to claim a regular place in Dylan's live concerts, and Michael Gray estimates that it had been performed no fewer than 1,033 times up to 1998!
The mood is lifted somewhat with the darkly comic "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," a long, rambling narrative concerning possibly the alter ego of "Frank" in the liner notes and the wonderfully named "Judas Priest." The friendship of these two unlikely heroes is tested when Frankie needs money and Judas provides him with a "...roll of tens" and invites him to pick which ones he wants. So begins the seduction of the naive Frankie who is tempted by wealth, power and sex, which is described with the colourful "And foaming at the mouth/He began to make his midnight creep." Ultimately, Frankie becomes a victim of his own excess and dies (ironically in Judas' arms) after seventeen days of debauchery. Uncharacteristically, Dylan provides us with a moral to this tale, but unfortunately it makes as little sense as the story itself; the simplicity of "...one should never be /Where one does not belong" and "Don't go mistaking Paradise/For that home across the road" do not sit easily with the far more cryptic "Nothing is revealed" which could apply to much of the album. That said, I consider this to be one of the highlights of JWH, Dylan's deadpan, half-mocking delivery is strangely at odds with the uneasy feel of the song, and his arcane phraseology almost invites you to look for hidden meanings.
There is less depth in "Drifter's Escape" which is performed in an almost jaunty manner, and Dylan's harmonica is used to great effect. The drifter is on trial for some unspecified crime (or perhaps just his social status) but is either unwilling or unable to accept his guilt "But I still do not know/What it was that I've done wrong." The undercurrents of menace and foreboding that are so prevalent on this album continue here with an unruly crowd "Outside the crowd was stirring/You could hear it from the door" and a dissatisfied jury "While the jury cried for more," but it is an act of God that decides the drifter's fate. The biblical lightening bolt destroys the courthouse "And while everybody knelt to pray/The drifter did escape" divine intervention indeed.
There is an intensity about "Dear Landlord" that is curiously lacking on the rest of the album. This simplistic plea by Dylan to those that he "owes"(his manager, publisher, T.V. and record companies) is heartfelt "I'm gonna give you all I got to give" and he appears to be asking for some gratitude "And I do hope you'll receive it well/Depending on the way you feel that you live." The prayer-like delivery is evident as emotions come to the surface in lines like "I know you've suffered much/But in this you are not so unique." and "And anyone can fill his life up/With things that he can see but he just cannot touch." In the end he offers a compromise or a quid pro quo "And if you don't underestimate me/Then I won't underestimate you." Many people saw this song as a thinly veiled attack on Albert Grossman, and although Dylan denied it, it was no secret that relationships were strained between Dylan and his business manager, and would remain so for some considerable time.
The dark and brutally frank "I Am a Lonesome Hobo" is in some ways an examination or fleshing-out of the drifter character from the earlier song, as Dylan puts himself in the place of so many of the outcasts on this album. The hobo has no illusions about his situation "Where another man's life might begin/That's exactly where mine ends" or his anti-social status "I have tried my hand at bribery/Blackmail and deceit" as he reminisces on his past "Well once I was rather prosperous/There was nothing I did lack." Like many in his position, he tries to lay the blame for his circumstances on others "But I did not trust my brother/I carry him to blame" and leaves us with a moralistic warning "Stay free from petty jealousies/Live by no man's code/And hold your judgement for yourself/Lest you wind up on this road."
There is a great deal of compassion to be heard in "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," although the delivery is somewhat mournful and laboured (listen to the drawn-out "mud" and "blood" in the final verse). The lines "Who passionately hates his life/And likewise fears his death" evoke despair, but why is this song so bleak? Dylan creates an image of a man battling against every adversity, yet his condition is of his own making "Who uses all his power to do evil" and "That man whom (sic) with his fingers cheats/And who lies with every breath." But he does deserve pity "Who eats but is not satisfied/Who hears but does not see," and even his dreams are futile "Whose visions in the final end/Must shatter like the glass," but the strangest lines are the last "I pity the poor immigrant/When his gladness comes to pass" an odd but strangely compelling song.
There is an ambiguity about "The Wicked Messenger" the emissary from Eli who had a "...mind that multiplied the smallest matter" and a tongue that could "...only flatter." Literary tales are full of messengers bearing bad news, but here there is little evidence of wickedness, only mischief. The ever present threat of doom is much in evidence at the start of the third verse "Oh, the leaves began to fallin'/And the seas began to part" as the messenger is told to bring the only thing anyone wants to hear "If ye cannot bring good news then don't bring any." Which is of course what Dylan delivers with the last two tracks on the album.
Seemingly out of place on first listening, "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are actually very much a part of this album. The addition of Pete Drake's steel guitar provides a jauntiness not in keeping with the rest of the album, and a very different Dylan gives us lines like "Down along the cove/I spied my little bundle of joy," and the final couplet "Everybody watchin' us go by/Knows we're in love, yes and they understand" gives more than a hint of his next direction. This is emphasised by the final track, the absolutely wonderful "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," almost an homage to Hank Williams in which everything comes together flawlessly. Dylan's sleepy, seductive vocal delivering a line like "That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon" is an outrageous contrast to the rest of the album, but this is a man at peace with himself and one who has laid his demons to rest.
"John Wesley Harding" could have reached the public sounding very different to the way it was released. Dylan had second thoughts about releasing the album as it stood and approached Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson to overdub some guitar and organ onto the basic tracks. Robertson thought that it sounded fine the way it was and thankfully talked Dylan out of it, "...I really liked it when I heard it" he said "and I couldn't really think right about overdubbing on it." Robertson was not the only one who liked it, "John Wesley Harding" sold half a million copies in its first six weeks. It was a critical success as well, Ralph Gleason writing in the fledgling rock music paper Rolling Stone said "...Dylan has returned, cleansed, as a whole man with a new kind of serenity to illuminate his visions and a deeper artistic impulse from within himself." John Landau writing in Crawdaddy saw Dylan adding his voice to the anti Vietnam climate "Dylan manifests a profound awareness of the war and how it is affecting all of us," and John Cohen in Sing Out went as far as to compare Dylan's work to that of Kafka, stories that "...really get to the heart of the matter, and yet you can never really decipher them"
So the album that opens with a ballad to an obscure Texas outlaw, combines biblical myths and legends with contemporary nineteenth century America and ends with a simple, uncomplicated Country and Western style love song, stands as the quiet masterpiece in the recordings of Bob Dylan, and all this in under forty minutes. Dylan himself was remarkably willing to discuss the songs, "I could have sung each of them better. I'm not exactly dissatisfied but I'm just not about to brag about the performance" he said in 1968, while admitting that he took more care in the writing of the album.
Unfortunately the foray into country music that succeeded this album would prove to be not wholly successful and the next five or six years would see Dylan releasing some poor work. In fact, it would not be until the release of "Planet Waves" in 1974 that his musical fortunes would improve.