Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding – [Record 128]
John Wesley Harding is the eighth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on December 27, 1967 by Columbia Records. Produced by Bob Johnston, the album marked Dylan’s return to acoustic music and traditional roots, after three albums of electric rock music. John Wesley Harding shares many stylistic threads with, and was recorded around the same time as, the prolific series of home recording sessions with The Band, partly released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
John Wesley Harding was exceptionally well received by critics and enjoyed solid sales, reaching #2 on the US charts and topping the UK charts. The commercial performance was considered remarkable considering that Dylan had kept Columbia from releasing the album with much promotion or publicity. Less than three months after its release, John Wesley Harding was certified gold by the RIAA. “All Along the Watchtower” became one of his most popular songs after it was recorded by Jimi Hendrix the following year.
In 2003, the album was ranked number 301 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
1, John Wesley Harding.
2, As I Went Out One Morning.
3, I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.
4, All Along the Watchtower.
5, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.
6, Drifter’s Escape.
7, Dear Landlord.
8, I Am a Lonesome Hobo.
9, I Pity the Poor Immigrant.
10, The Wicked Messenger.
11, Down Along the Cove.
12, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
Recording sessions: Dylan went to work on John Wesley Harding in the fall of 1967. By then, 18 months had passed since the completion of Blonde on Blonde. After recovering from the worst of the results of his motorcycle accident, Dylan spent a substantial amount of time recording the informal basement sessions at West Saugerties, New York. During that time, he stockpiled a large number of recordings, including many new compositions. He eventually submitted nearly all of them for copyright, but declined to include any of them in his next studio release (Dylan would not release any of those recordings to the commercial market until 1975’s The Basement Tapes; and by then, some of those recordings had been bootlegged, usually sourced from an easy-to-find set of publisher’s demos). Instead, Dylan used a different set of songs for John Wesley Harding.
It is not clear[to whom?] when these songs were actually written, but none of them have turned up in the dozens of basement recordings that have since surfaced. According to Robbie Robertson, “As I recall it was just on a kind of whim that Bob went down to Nashville. And there, with just a couple of guys, he put those songs down on tape.” Those sessions took place in the autumn of 1967, requiring less than twelve hours over three stints in the studio.
Dylan brought to Nashville a set of songs similar to the feverish yet pithy compositions that came out of the Basement Tapes sessions. They would be given an austere sound sympathetic to their content. When Dylan arrived in Nashville, producer Bob Johnston recalls that “he was staying in the Ramada Inn down there, and he played me his songs and he suggested we just use bass and guitar and drums on the record. I said fine, but also suggested we add a steel guitar, which is how Pete Drake came to be on that record.”
Dylan was once again recording with a band, but the instrumentation was very sparse. During most of the recording, the rhythm section of drummer Kenneth A. Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy were the only ones supporting Dylan, who handled all harmonica, guitar, piano, and vocal parts. “I didn’t intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound,” Dylan said in 1971. “I would have liked … more steel guitar, more piano. More music … I didn’t sit down and plan that sound.”
The first session, held on October 17 at Columbia’s Studio A, lasted only three hours, with Dylan recording master takes of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, “Drifter’s Escape”, and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. Dylan returned to the studio on November 6, recording master takes for “All Along the Watchtower”, “John Wesley Harding”, “As I Went Out One Morning”, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”, and “I Am a Lonesome Hobo”. Dylan returned for one last session on November 29, completing all of the remaining work.
The final session did break from the status quo by employing Pete Drake on the final two recordings. Cut between 9pm and 12 midnight, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Down Along the Cove” would be the only two songs featuring Drake’s light pedal steel guitar.
Sometime between the second and third session, Dylan approached Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson of The Band to complete some overdub work on the basic tracks: “Then we did talk about doing some overdubbing on it, but I really liked it when I heard it and I couldn’t really think right about overdubbing on it. So it ended up coming out the way he brought it back.”
John Wesley Harding was released in stores less than four weeks after the final session, an unusually quick turnaround time, especially for a major label release.
This would be Dylan’s last LP to be issued simultaneously in both monophonic (CL 2804) and stereophonic (CS 9604) formats.
Songs: Most of the songs on John Wesley Harding have pared-down lyrics. Though the style remains evocative, continuing Dylan’s strong use of bold imagery, the wild, intoxicating surreality that seemed to flow in a stream-of-consciousness fashion has been tamed into something earthier and more crisp. “What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words,” Dylan said in a 1968 interview.” There’s no line that you can stick your finger through, there’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler. Each line has something.” According to Allen Ginsberg, Dylan had talked to him about his new approach, telling him “he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something. He wasn’t just making up a line to go with a rhyme anymore; each line had to advance the story, bring the song forward. And from that time came some of his strong laconic ballads like ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.’ There was no wasted language, no wasted breath. All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental.” This mirrors Dylans increased interest in painting at the time. Each song creates profound images i.e. “two riders were approaching”,and each song is concise, complete, yet leaving room for interpretation. Even the song structures are rigid as most of them adhere to a similar three-verse model, although much of the beat patterns throughout the measures were timeshifted, that is, units of three and five beats were employed, over the four beat structure.
The dark, religious tones that appeared during the Basement Tapes sessions also continue through these songs, manifesting in language from the King James Bible. In The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, Bert Cartwright cites more than sixty biblical allusions over the course of the thirty-eight and a half minute album, with as many as fifteen in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” alone. An Old Testament morality also colors most of the songs’ characters.
In an interview with Toby Thompson in 1968, Dylan’s mother, Beatty Zimmerman, mentioned Dylan’s growing interest in the Bible, stating that “in his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.”
The album opens with the title song, which references Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin, although some commentators find religious significance in the character’s initials (“JWH” as Yaweh). Dylan discussed “John Wesley Harding” when he spoke with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969:
“I was gonna write a ballad on … like maybe one of those old cowboy … you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn’t want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that … I knew people were gonna listen to that song and say that they didn’t understand what was going on, but they would’ve singled that song out later, if we hadn’t called the album John Wesley Harding and placed so much importance on that, for people to start wondering about it … if that hadn’t been done, that song would’ve come up and people would have said it was a throw-away song.”
Music critic Tim Riley writes that “‘As I Went Out One Morning’ has more to do with the temptations of a fair damsel who walks in chains than with America’s first outlaw journalist, Tom Paine.” In his album review in Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus wrote, “I sometimes hear the song as a brief journey into American history; the singer out for a walk in the park, finding himself next to a statue of Tom Paine, and stumbling across an allegory: Tom Paine, symbol of freedom and revolt, co-opted into the role of Patriot by textbooks and statue committees, and now playing, as befits his role as Patriot, enforcer to a girl who runs for freedom—in chains, to the South, the source of vitality in America, in America’s music—away from Tom Paine. We have turned our history on its head; we have perverted our own myths…”
In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, the narrator is addressed in his dreams by St. Augustine of Hippo, the bishop-philosopher who held the episcopal seat in Hippo Regius, a Roman port in northern Africa; he died in 430 A.D. when the city was overrun by Vandals. Riley notes that in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, Dylan twists St. Augustine’s “symbolic stature to signify anyone who has been put to death by a mob.” Throughout the song, the narrator’s vision of St. Augustine reveals to him “how it feels to be the target of mob psychology, and how confusing it is to identify with the throng’s impulses to smother what it loves too much or destroy what it can’t understand.” The opening lyrics are based on the labor union song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”. The last line continues the “Joe Hill” theme, echoing the last line of Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre”: “I said God bless the Mineworkers’ Union, and then I hung my head and cried”.
The album’s most overt Biblical reference comes in “All Along the Watchtower”, inspired by a section in Isaiah dealing with the fall of Babylon. As Heylin writes, “the thief that cries ‘the hour is getting late’ is surely the thief in the night foretold in Revelation, Jesus Christ come again. It is He who says, in St. John the Divine’s tract: ‘I will come on thee as a thief, and Thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.'” Dylan later said of John Wesley Harding that he “‘had been dealing with the devil in a fretful way.'” “All Along the Watchtower” would soon gain great fame in a dramatic interpretation by Jimi Hendrix.
“All Along the Watchtower” is also notable for its vi-V-IV chord progression. Jimmy Page used this cadence for the coda to “Stairway to Heaven,” John Entwistle of the Who used it in the opening bars of “Fiddle About”, and it would later find popular use in heavy metal music. Dylan himself returned to this progression in Desire’s “Hurricane”.
“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is perhaps the album’s most enigmatic song, structured as a (possibly insincere) morality play. The song details Frankie Lee’s temptation by a roll of ten dollar bills from Judas Priest. As Frankie thinks it over, he grows anxious from Judas’s stare. Eventually, Judas leaves Frankie to mull over the money, telling him he can be found at “Eternity, though you might call it ‘Paradise’.” After Judas leaves, a stranger arrives. He asks Frankie if he’s “the gambler, whose father is deceased?” The stranger brings a message from Judas, who’s apparently stranded in a house. Frankie panics and runs to Judas, only to find him standing outside of a house. (Judas says, “It’s not a house … it’s a home.”) Frankie is overcome by his nerves as he sees a woman’s face in each of the home’s twenty-four windows. Bounding up the stairs, foaming at the mouth, he begins to “make his midnight creep.” For sixteen days and nights, Frankie raves until he dies on the seventeenth, in Judas’s arms, dead of “thirst.” The final two verses are the most impenetrable. No one says a word as Frankie is brought out, no one except a boy who mutters “Nothing is revealed,” as he conceals his own mysterious guilt. The last verse moralizes that “one should never be where one does not belong” and closes with the song’s most quoted line, “don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”
Each of the album’s next three songs features one of society’s rejects as the narrator or central figure[clarification needed]. “Drifter’s Escape” tells the story of a convicted drifter who escapes captivity when a bolt of lightning strikes a court of law. “Dear Landlord” is sung by a narrator pleading for respect and equal rights. “I Am a Lonesome Hobo” is a humble warning from a hobo to those who are better off.
Self-styled ‘Dylanologist’ Al Weberman claimed “Dear Landlord” was inspired by Dylan’s own conflicts with manager Albert Grossman, but many critics have challenged this notion. Most interpretations rest on who the ‘landlord’ is supposed to be, with most explanations ranging from a literal representation to a metaphor for God.
“There’s only two songs on the album which came at the same time as the music,” Dylan recalled in 1978, referring to “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. “The rest of the songs were written out on paper, and I found the tunes for them later. I didn’t do it before, and I haven’t done it since. That might account for the specialness of that album.”
Lyrically, those same two songs stand out from the rest of the album. They are warm, cheerful love songs, lacking any of the Biblical references found throughout the album. “If John Wesley Harding was the album made the morning after a dark night of the soul,” wrote Heylin, “these two songs suggested a newly cleansed singer returning from the edge.” Accentuating the difference is the use of pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake on both tracks. The overall sound of these two tracks sounds closer to country, anticipating the country rock movement to follow as well as Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline. But producer Johnston said that despite some of the instrumentation, “I don’t think it’s really country; some of it is like country; some of it is like the ’29 dust-bowl days of Woodie Guthrie”.
Packaging: The cover photograph of John Wesley Harding shows a squinting Dylan flanked by brothers Luxman and Purna Das, two Bengali Bauls, South Asian musicians brought to Woodstock by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Behind Dylan is Charlie Joy, a local stonemason and carpenter. A long-recurring rumor is that images of various members of the Beatles are hidden on the front cover, in the knots of the tree. This was verified by Rolling Stone with photographer John Berg prior to the album’s release. There is speculation that the faces were much more apparent but brushed over sometime before press time (hence, the unusually dark features on the most prominent tree trunk).
The album sleeve is also notable for its liner notes, written by Dylan himself. The liner notes tells the story of three kings and three characters (Terry Shute, Frank, and Frank’s wife, Vera), incorporating details from the album’s songs.
The album was re-released in 2010 with new liner notes by Greil Marcus.
Aftermath: “I asked Columbia to release it with no publicity and no hype, because this was the season of hype,” Dylan said. Clive Davis urged Dylan to pull a single, but even then Dylan refused, preferring to maintain the album’s low-key profile.
In a year when psychedelia dominated popular culture, the agrarian John Wesley Harding was seen as reactionary. Critic Jon Landau wrote in Crawdaddy Magazine, “For an album of this kind to be released amidst Sgt. Pepper, Their Satanic Majesties Request, After Bathing at Baxter’s, somebody must have had a lot of confidence in what he was doing … Dylan seems to feel no need to respond to the predominate trends in pop music at all. And he is the only major pop artist about whom this can be said.”
The critical stature of John Wesley Harding has continued to grow. As late as 2000, Clinton Heylin wrote, “John Wesley Harding remains one of Dylan’s most enduring albums. Never had Dylan constructed an album-as-an-album so self-consciously. Not tempted to incorporate even later basement visions like ‘Going to Acapulco’ and ‘Clothesline Saga,’ Dylan managed in less than six weeks to construct his most perfectly executed official collection.”
The album was remastered and re-released in 2003 using a new technology, SACD.
While legend has it that Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding after finishing The Basement Tapes sessions with members of The Band, several biographers and discographers have argued that the final reel of basement recordings actually postdates the first John Wesley Harding session.
Regardless of when this session actually occurred, The Band did accompany Dylan for at least one performance in the months following John Wesley Harding. After hearing of Woody Guthrie’s passing (two weeks before John Wesley Harding’s first session), Dylan contacted Harold Leventhal, Guthrie’s longtime friend and manager, and extended an early acceptance to any invitation for any memorial show that might be planned. The memorial came on January 20, 1968, with a pair of shows at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Sharing the bill with his folk contemporaries like Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, and Guthrie’s son, Arlo, Dylan gave his first public performances in twenty months, backed by The Band (billed then as The Crackers). They played only three songs (“Grand Coulee Dam”, “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt”, and “I Ain’t Got No Home”), and it would be another eighteen months before Dylan would again perform in concert.
As 1967 came to a close, Dylan’s lifestyle became more stable. His wife, Sara, had given birth to their daughter, Anna, earlier that summer. He had reconciled with his estranged parents. A long contract negotiation ended in a lucrative new deal, allowing Dylan to stay with Columbia Records. While the media would never lose interest, Dylan maintained a low enough profile that kept him out of the spotlight.
After his appearance at Woody Guthrie’s memorial concert, 1968 would see little, if any, musical activity from Bob Dylan. His songs continued to be a major presence, appearing on landmark albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and The Band, but Dylan himself would not release or perform any additional music. There was very little songwriting activity, as well.
“One day I was half-stepping, and the lights went out,” Dylan would recall ten years later. “And since that point, I more or less had amnesia … It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously.”
There were major changes in his private life[when?]: Dylan’s father died from a heart attack, prompting Dylan to return to Hibbing to attend the funeral. Shortly afterwards, Sara gave birth to their third child.