Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding was Bob Dylan's eighth studio album and was released in December of 1967. The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee between October 17, 1967 and November 29, 1967. The album marked Dylan's return to folk based acoustic music after releasing the mostly electric albums, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). On the album Dylan was backed by Ken Buttrey on drums, Charlie McCoy on bass, and Peter Drake on peddle steel. In 2003, the album was ranked 301 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time.

The songs that make up John Wesley Harding are both musically and lyrically pared down compared to those on Blonde on Blonde. Every song on the album is littered with biblical references, which is not new for Dylan. Bert Cartwright, author of The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, cited more than sixty references in the mere twelve tracks that make up the album. Dylan's approach to song writing also change with this album, continuing to show his lyrical and stylistic evolution. Allen Ginsberg once stated, “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.”

The album opens with John Wesley Harding, which was written about nineteenth century Texas outlaw and gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, though a few critics have pointed out the significance of the initials JHW as Yahweh. This is significant because it's not clear what the song has to do with the life of John Wesley Hardin, the man himself, which opens up the meaning or at least the songs influence to debate.

The second track on the album is As I Went Out One Morning. The track begins with its narrator taking a stroll near the property of America's first outlaw journalist, Tom Paine. The narrator's focus is on a fair damsel who is attempting to flee the clutches of Tom Paine and almost nothing to do with Tom Paine, the man or myth.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is a song of martyrdom and mob psychology. The narrator has a vision of a suffering St. Augustine of Hippo that has been put to death by a mob. This symbolic vision of St. Augustine becomes one of sympathetic martyrdom in the sense that Dylan himself could relate to the feeling of being persecuted by some, smothered by the devotion of others, destroyed by those that hopelessly misunderstand. The song also pays homage to Dylan's old folk roots by referencing the labor union song, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night and Woody Guthrie's Ludlow Massacre.

All Along The Watchtower, which would be transformed into a rock classic by Jimi Hendrix when he recorded it for his album Electric Ladyland in 1968. Watchtower contains the albums most biblical references. The song was inspired by passages in the Book of Isiah dealing with the fall of Babylon. It also contains references to Christ as a symbolic 'thief in the night', as mentioned in the book of Revelation.

The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is the most dense and possibly misinterpreted song on the album. The song is constructed as a morality play about Frankie Lee and his friend Judas Priest. The song can be seen as a study in temptation. Frankie Lee, a gambler, is down on his luck and asks for a lone from Judas Priest. Judas lays out a role of tens offering them to Frankie, who immediately feels self-conscious while under the gaze of Judas Priest. Frankie Lee's unease becomes apparent to Judas Priest who decides to leave Frankie alone, informing him that after he makes his decision he'll be able to find him in 'eternity, though you might call it paradise'. The song ends with Judas once again leading Frankie Lee into temptation. When Frankie Lee seeks out Judas Priest, he finds him outside of house with '4 and 20 windows and a woman's face in every one'. Overcome by lust Frankie Lee enters the house and its occupants for '16 nights and days/upon the seventeenth he bursts/ into the arms Judas Priest which is where he dies of thirst.' Frankie Lee has succumbed to temptation and paid the ultimate price. The song concludes with the often quoted line, “don't go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”

The next three tracks Dylan takes on the voice of various societal outsiders. The drifter, hobo, and immigrant, can all be seen as disconnected figures in modern society. These personas harken to the figures from the blues and folk songs of Dylan's roots, but also represent Dylan himself.

Wicked Messenger is a biblical stomp about a prophet with an amphetamine brain who has come to bring a message of doom to the people and is immediately rejected in the line, “If ye can't bring good news, then don't bring any.”

The album closes with a pair of transitional country influenced love songs. Down Along The Cove and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight are transitional in the sense that they are a solid indication of what was to come in the guise of Nashville Skyline in 1969. Both tunes are unpretentious feel good love songs written about the light at the edge of woods, found just before dawn, after a dark night of the soul. Temptation conquered, vision of salvation.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite record of his. Great post but no mention of "Dear Landlord"? I think that's his most underrated song. Anyway, check out my music site Rock Turtleneck at rockturtleneck dot com. Lots of Dylan, and other great artists of that ilk.