#337: John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan
Apologies for my lateness on this one. I guess I still can’t get as excited about Bob Dylan as I can for other artists, but we have a ways to go before hitting the last Bob Dylan record, so I still have time.
Rolling Stone, on the other hand, has a bit of a crush on good ol’ Bob, calling it his most “ominous album” and saying it defies “all current trends.” I’ll agree that it’s ominous, alright. The original “All Along the Watchtower” arrests me every time. I know it’s known for being done better by a certain Jimi, but just imagine it being sung from a lonesome night watchmen and his companions. Just like some of the other songs here (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” for one) the harmonica cuts right through the crunchy acoustic guitar, making it rawer and angrier and even more desperate than Hendrix’s symphonic, choreographed version.
(Another song connected to a significantly heavier band is the infectiously cheerful “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” I guess that gives him some metal cred as well?)
Interestingly, this record and The Basement Tapes were recorded during the same period of time. TBT was cobbled together from various sessions in upstate New York, while the material for JWH totaled less than 12 hours and was recorded in Nashville.
The distance from Big Pink means that he’s embodying an entirely different spirit on this album. TBT is all about hanging out with your buddies; this one is about the common misery of being miserable by yourself. “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” and “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” are both moving pleas of dignity, colored with regret. Dylan’s hobos are down on their luck and deserving of empathy. Yet the song that displayed this spirit best is “Dear Landlord,” where he frankly begs his landlord not to put a price on his soul without any bitterness or blame.
Finally, I was surprised that he ended it with two straight-faced love songs, “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” It’s honestly nice, especially on a dark album that pulls you into a state of constant vigilance. You can practically dance to them.
Fun Fact: “John Wesley Harding,” named after a real outlaw, is misspelled!
Other Highlights: “As I Went Out One Morning,” “Drifter’s Escape,” and “The Wicked Messenger.”