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Music / John Wesley Harding

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"There was a wicked messenger, from Eli he did come..."

John Wesley Harding is the eighth studio album by Bob Dylan, released in 1967. His first studio album released since Blonde on Blonde, the tumultuous world tour, his mysterious motorcycle accident in July 1966, and following 10-Minute Retirement, it's yet another departure from anything he'd released earlier, stripping back the music of his electric albums to acoustic guitar, harmonica, bass and drums, and with concise, ambiguous lyrics containing neither the directness of his Protest Song phase or the wild-grown surrealism of his mid-60's output. (He'd spent the summer recording and writing The Basement Tapes with The Band, but those recordings wouldn't be publicly released for years).

It's probably best known today for the single "All Along The Watchtower", which would quickly be Covered Up by The Jimi Hendrix Experience on their album Electric Ladyland to the extent that most of Dylan's various live versions through the years resemble the Experience's version of the song far more than his own.


Side One

  1. "John Wesley Harding" (2:58)
  2. "As I Went Out One Morning" (2:49)
  3. "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" (3:53)
  4. "All Along the Watchtower" (2:31)
  5. "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (5:35)
  6. "Drifter's Escape" (2:52)

Side Two

  1. "Dear Landlord" (3:16)
  2. "I Am a Lonesome Hobo" (3:19)
  3. "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" (4:12)
  4. "The Wicked Messenger" (2:02)
  5. "Down Along the Cove" (2:23)
  6. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" (2:34)

If you cannot bring good tropes, then don't bring any:

  • An Aesop:
    • "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest" (may be a Spoof Aesop).
    Well the moral of the story, the moral of this song
    Is simply that one should never be where one does not belong
    So when you see your neighbour carryin' somethin', help him with his load
    And don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.
    • "I Am A Lonesome Hobo"
    Stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man’s code
    And hold your judgment for yourself lest you wind up on this road
  • As the Good Book Says...: Practically every song has some sort of Biblical nod, some quite subtle.
    • "All Along The Watchtower" alludes to Isaiah 21.
    I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights: and, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
    • "The Wicked Messenger" to Proverbs 13:
    A wicked messenger falleth into mischief: but a faithful ambassador is health.
  • Ballad of X: "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest".
  • Be Yourself: From "Dear Landlord":
    Now each of us has his own special gift
  • Bearer of Bad News: The Wicked Messenger seems to be one against his will.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The cover consists of a black-and-white Polaroid photo against a grey background.
  • Deus ex Machina: The ending of "Drifter's Escape".
    Just then a bolt of lightning struck the courthouse out of shape
    And while everybody knelt to pray, the drifter did escape
  • Epic Rocking: Largely avoided. Only "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" exceeds the 5:00 mark.
  • Epiphanic Prison: "The Wicked Messenger"
    And he was told but these few words which opened up his heart:
    "If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any."
  • Face on the Cover: Dylan is featured on the cover.
  • Here We Go Again!: "All Along The Watchtower" is effectively an infinite loop, beginning In Medias Res with a discussion between the joker and the thief, and ending with them riding into shot.
    There must be some way outta here...
    • He's made this explicit in his latter-day live performances of the song by closing it with a reprise of the first verse.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The title track. The Real Life John Wesley Hardin (Dylan added the G) was hardly a friend to the poor, he was definitely known to hurt an honest man, and he was eventually both caught and killed.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: "I Pity The Poor Immigrant"
    I pity the poor immigrant
    Who wishes he would've stayed home
    Who uses all his power to do evil
    But in the end is always left so alone
  • In the Style of: "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" is a slightly surreal riff on Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter narrations.
  • Intercourse with You: "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"
    Shut the light, shut the shade
    You don't have to be afraid
    I'll be your baby tonight.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: "John Wesley Harding"
    John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor
  • Lust Makes You Dumb: Frankie Lee is described as "foaming at the mouth" in response to seeing all the women at the house where he finds Judas Priest, and basically cavorts himself to death after spending 17 days enjoying their company.
  • Manly Tears: "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" ends with the narrator weeping in remorse.
  • Meaningful Name: It's been noted that Judas Priest must have some kind of symbolic meaning, what with "Judas" symbolizing betrayal and "Priest" having religious implications. But there's also the fact that it's an old Minced Oath for "Jesus Christ".
  • New Sound Album: From the electric "thin wild mercury music" of Blonde on Blonde to a stripped-down, dry, mostly acoustic sound, with sparse enigmatic lyrics instead of long Word Salad Lyrics.
  • Ontological Mystery: Experienced by the title character in "Drifter's Escape".
    My trip hasn't been a pleasant one, and my time it isn't long
    And I still do not know what it was that I've done wrong
  • Production Foreshadowing: "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" anticipates Dylan's turn to Country Music on Nashville Skyline.
  • Sad Clown: "All Along the Watchtower" begins with a cry of despair from the joker to the thief.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest"
    ...Nothing is revealed.
    • The story in the liner notes about Frank and the three kings also counts.
  • Significant Monogram: Is the similarity of J-W-H to the Tetragrammaton just coincidence?
  • Shout-Out:
    • "As I Went Out One Morning" features Thomas Paine as a central character.
    • "I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine", though true to form Dylan fudges the actual history a bit - St Augustine wasn't martyred, for one thing.
    • The title track is partly modelled on Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd".
    • Likewise "I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine" on the folk standard "Joe Hill".
    • British folk singer John Wesley Harding named himself after this album.
    • The metal band Judas Priest named themselves after the song "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest".
    • The Jimi Hendrix Experience famously covered "All Along The Watchtower" on Electric Ladyland, in a version that is nowadays more famous than Dylan's original.
  • A Storm Is Coming: "All Along The Watchtower"
    Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
    Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
  • Team Shot: Subverted - the cover, shot at the Woodstock, New York property of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, shows Dylan posing with three people, none of whom have anything whatsoever to do with the actual album (specifically, two Bengali musicians who Grossman had invited to visit America and a local stonemason who happened to be doing work on the property at the time).
  • Three Chords and the Truth: All of the songs feature Dylan on acoustic guitar or piano, plus harmonica, accompanied by bass and drums.
  • 12-Bar Blues: "Down Along The Cove" is both this and a Silly Love Song.
  • With Friends Like These...: Really, Frankie, why would you trust someone named "Judas"?