Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding review

Secret Meeting score: 90

by Ben McLellan and Phil Scarisbrick

In early 1968, Bob Dylan released his first official output since mid-sixties trilogy-capper Blonde on Blonde. In the intervening period, he circumnavigated the globe on the historic ‘66 electric world tour, and suffered the heavily mythologised motorcycle accident in the Catskills, Upstate New York. To fans desperately anticipating the direction that the ‘spokesman of their generation’ would go in next – totally unaware of the low-key, country, folk and blues recordings Dylan had been making with The Band in Woodstock – the album couldn’t have been more of a shock.

The record is far removed from the previous album’s densely layered, kaleidoscopic and often surreal account of fast paced urban life, despite being recorded over a nine hour session with same the drummer and bassist used on Blonde On Blonde (Kenneth A. Buttley and Charlie McCoy respectively), in the same Nashville studio. It’s stark and minimalist in both production, arrangement and use of language. A characteristically bold move in the flower-powered  ‘Summer of Love’, perpetuated by a counter-culture Dylan himself had done so much to inspire. Like many of the songs on the The Basement Tapes, Dylan had been secretly recorded with The Band in 1967, they didn’t really follow any sort of pattern. It was only when he went down to Nashville on a whim though that the record took shape.

John Wesley Harding often detailed rural themes. Visceral accounts of the parts of America he’d been spending more and more time in since ’66. Most importantly though was the clear, focused and deep way Dylan was mining traditions of American folklore and mythology. The cast of characters detail outlaws, cowboys and drifters, playing out vignettes acting as clear biblical parables. While not religiously committed, this album is the most obvious signpost for Dylan’s Christian conversion over a decade later.

The album’s centrepiece, All Along The Watchtower, was immortalised in one of the best Dylan covers to date – Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version released the same year. Despite this more familiar rendition, the song stands up just as well in the paired down acoustic presentation here. Dark, apocalyptic imagery develops across three verses, building into the haunting closing line, prophetically pointing to the Altamont Festival furore and the death of the sixties idealism.

The album’s title track may feel like it fits in here, but for Dylan it felt at odds with the rest of the record. In 1985, he told Rolling Stone writer and future Academy Award winner Cameron Crowe- “I didn’t know what to make of it. So I figured the best thing to do would be to put out the album as quickly as possible, call it John Wesley Harding because that was the one song that I had no idea what it was about, why it was even on the album. So I figured I’d call the album that, call attention to it, make it something special.” The name of the song is a play on the name of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, although an extra ‘g’ managed to find its way into the equation.

As I Went Out One Morning tells the tale of a man offering a hand to a woman in chains, but realising that she desired more than he was offering and meant to do him harm. The allegorical tale sees the song’s narrator, Tom Paine, represent civil liberties. In 1963, Dylan was awarded the Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. His speech saw him bombarded with boos from an incensed crowd, rushing from the stage in fear of violence. The vitriol was sparked when he claimed to have empathy for some of John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald’s feelings. The song’s main character may well have grown from this incident.

The album’s longest song is The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is a sober, spoken-word exchange between the titular characters. As Judas Priest offers crumbs of temptation, we hear Frankie Lee respond. Falling further and further into his ‘friend’s’ trap, this house of temptation closes in and engulfs him. While he often leaves his allegories open-ended, Dylan offers a conclusion here: “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.” The song’s scant instrumentation gives a haunting quality to this parabolic warning of the dangers of worldly desires, again giving us a veiled glimpse of where he’d head in the ‘Gospel’ era.

Drifter’s Escape layers an outsider’s commentary on society, outsiders, laws, the judicial system and interventions from on high atop yet more sparse music. Keeping the core band at the heart of this record is supremely affecting and offers real pathos to the tales he is telling. The two-chord sequence rolls along, giving momentum to the words being sung above. This time focusing on ‘the drifter’, a man whose simple life has become intertwined with a complex judicial system that has left him jaded and confused. You feel for this man, who luckily has one friend in the courtroom: the judge. You can’t help but visualise the scene in your own head while listening. Much like To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Tom Robinson, the man in the dock is a victim of not fitting in to a world he doesn’t understand. Also, like Robinson, he must place his trust in a stranger who understands it perfectly, but seems equally exacerbated by it.

Draped in Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar, the album’s closing chapter once again points to Dylan’s future, this time foreshadowing follow-up album Nashville Skyline‘s Country immersion. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight sees him break from the lyrical themes of the rest of the record to deliver a country croon. With the album’s only real chorus, it acts as a light-relief at the end of the heavy themes delivered throughout. It is a superb piece of songwriting and shows Dylan’s versatility. Despite the overt folk overtones of the album’s complex allegories, he is still breaking the shackles of those who pigeon-holed him as simply a ‘folk singer’. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is, at its heart, a pop song.

Often overlooked in the pantheon of Dylan classics, John Wesley Harding stands out on its own terms. After the success of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, most artists would have capitalised on a winning formula. Dylan has never travelled with the herd though. Catching many listeners off their guard, the stark reality of the lyrical tapestries woven throughout this record felt like biblical lessons, set over the most minimal soundtrack. As Jon Landau wrote in his review at the time “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.”

Perhaps then, this record has endured more than many others. The self-conscious construction of an ‘album’ rather than a collection of songs makes it stand out as a single piece of art. Dylan demanded Columbia utilised no publicity – he wouldn’t even allow a single. When Dylan returned to these biblical themes more overtly with Street Legal in 1978, they were a different beast altogether. This early foray gave us a glimpse of this by stealth, but in an utterly captivating way.

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