Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #103: John Wesley Harding


John Wesley Harding is an album that makes sense if you really step back and take a look at the big picture of Dylan's career, and an album that can make exceptionally little sense when trying to put it in the context of that career. After all, even with hindsight the album kinda looks like an alien in its musical climate - a mainly acoustic album of sparse lyrics and equally sparse arrangements, recorded by an artist famed for his complicated lyrics and exceptional band arrangements, released in a season where psychedelica was running rampant and where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album everybody was paying attention to. It must have been even more insane back then; can you imagine picking up Dylan's first album after the mindblowing Blonde on Blonde, putting it on your turntable expecting another Electric Trilogy blast, then hearing that first song and realizing you're getting something entirely different? It was a different world back in 1967, and people were still getting used to the idea of creative maturation and evolution in rock music. Hearing John Wesley Harding must have been a real trip.

At least, for most people. We tend to occasionally overestimate just how much technology plays a part in our lives - after all, there are still parts of this country (let alone the world) that don't have broadband internet yet, never mind Twitter or BitTorrent or all that fooferaw. But there is still that segment of the population that constantly stays up to date on the cutting edge of technology, knows just when the next iPhone iteration is coming out, and where we're headed as an information-saturated society. And, back in 1967, there were a chosen few that had managed to snag themselves a copy of what Dylan and the Band were up to in the early days of that year, heard the songs that we now know as the Basement Tapes, and had their minds blown a little earlier than everybody else. We're talking a very chosen few (Great White Wonder, not exactly a widely released record to begin with, was still two years away), but those select musicians and lucky friends/acquaintances of those musicians that heard those tapes could get what Dylan was up to on John Wesley Harding. And, again with the benefit of hindsight, we can hear the Basement Tapes and realize that Dylan had the direction for his next Columbia album more or less in mind all that time.

There's something interesting about the fact that Dylan went to Nashville, where he'd churned out his last drug-influenced album, to record John Wesley Harding (in more typical Dylan fashion, the twelve songs were cranked out in three sessions and just under twelve hours - most bands these days are lucky to have done ONE song, maybe two or three if everything breaks right, in the studio in that time). Maybe he was just comfortable working there, with many of the same musicians that worked on Blonde on Blonde, who knows. But what I like to think was happening was that Dylan was affirming, maybe even to himself, that even though the music itself was far different from what came before (quite frankly, the closest any of his previous records comes to sounding similar in tone is his debut), he knew exactly who he was and why he was recording it. Even the fact that he wore the same jacket on this cover as he did on the last album says something - yeah, you're not used to this, but I'm still Bob Dylan, after all.

And he backed that up on record, as well. I kind of brought this up when I began writing about Blonde on Blonde - one thing that makes the last two Electric Trilogy records so strong is how remarkably cohesive the albums are, top to bottom. Every song serves a purpose on the album, outside of its own individual strength, and the album becomes far more worthy as a total listening experience because of that. Bringing it All Back Home, naturally, doesn't have this same unity (although you could argue that both Side A and Side B have their own intrinsic unity), which isn't a bad thing, just a statement of fact. Once Dylan had found his feet as an electric musician, he completely understood how to make albums, not collections of songs, but pieces of music that immersed you in its own internal world from beginning to end. And John Wesley Harding has that same cohesion; the internal world Dylan created might be miles away from what he was on about in 1965-1966, but there is a world all the same, and it's just as interesting and beautiful as the worlds he'd created wired to the gills on speed.

One of the really remarkable things about this album is that Dylan proved conclusively that you can make creative strides as a musician without resorting to overstuffed instrumentation or a gaggle of cohorts to help create a ton of half-baked ideas. It was the Basement Tapes where Dylan made a left turn in songwriting styles, and it was here where that left turn bore fruit. Dylan stripped down as much of himself as he could, both in the arrangements and in his words, and managed to point the way towards a new direction, one that owed just as much to the past as his acoustic records did, while also paying debts to a strand of music only hinted at in his previous work - country music. The country-rock boom may have still been on the horizon, but Dylan was already incorporating that into his music, not so much anticipating a trend as putting himself in the right place as that trend arose. And the country elements in Dylan's music lasted long enough for Dylan to create some of his best music of his career. You could even argue that the simpler, more rootsy country style espoused on this and Nashville Skyline would reach its apex in the spare, gentle, powerful arrangements of Blood on the Tracks. Not too bad for an album that shocked the hell out of a lot of people upon its release.

John Wesley Harding, in some ways, is the forgotten Dylan masterpiece, an album nearly as strong as the Electric Trilogy but maybe a fifth as well-known and loved (even with "All Along the Watchtower" on it). And that is perfectly understandable; an album this unassuming, this straightforward and direct, bereft of the spaced-out genius of the previous albums (though not without its own genius, of course), was probably never going to be as popular or draw as much attention. Maybe that's just the way that Dylan wanted it. He'd come off one of the craziest years any human being had ever lived, achieved fame only a few people that ever lived could ever dream of, and every account tells us that he wanted to pull back from that and try to get to a lifestyle that might be considered "normal" by someone's standards. And, for a little while, he succeeded in that. But he could never stop recording music, and he recorded an album that captured his frame of mind, his desire to pare back and keep it simple, stupid. And we got a masterpiece out of that, a great record in a year full of great records. Not too shabby.


Even the choice of opener for the album speaks to the overall tone of the album - Dylan kicks things off with, of all things, a tale of a Western bandit on the run from the law. Dylan later said that he named the album after this song so that people wouldn't think of it as a throwaway, and it's entirely possible that he would have been proven right. After all, there really isn't too much of a story to the song - this guy's great, he's like Robin Hood, nobody can pin him down, so what? - and the simple four-chord arrangement isn't the kind of thing that brings people back for repeat listens. But by giving the entire song cycle that name, we find ourselves thinking about whether or not Dylan saw something of himself in this man (named John Wesley Hardin, by the way - maybe the "g" was added because it sounds better when sung, or Dylan just didn't have an Encyclopedia Britannica handy) or in the "story" that he's telling, and decided to apply what he saw to the rest of the songs. Either way, it's an interesting decision, and one that's worth exploring.

Dylan didn't quite get all the facts right about the guy - not that it matters, since it's pretty obvious he was going more for the evoking of the Wild West and the old, weird America (forgive my use of the term) than any attempt at making a biographical sketch of a reasonably minor outlaw from the frontier period of our nation's history. What should matter more is the fact that Dylan chose to write this kind of song at all; he'd performed numbers like "Pretty Boy Floyd" during his folk days and surely knew of any number of other likeminded songs, but this was the first time that he'd taken his own stab at writing an outlaw song. Maybe he just felt like it was the right time - for a man that's always played fast and loose with his own history, he might have felt right at home writing a song that played a little fast and loose with the history of a vagabond. Dylan's fascination with the Wild West has always been a little overt, after all (cf. Masked and Anonymous, his role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, etc.).

Whatever reason he chose to write the song, he gave it both the honor of album title and pole position, and in the same way that just about every album opener ever lends at least a little of its spirit to the rest of the album, "John Wesley Harding" adds a little bit of flavor to how we view John Wesley Harding. The mere fact alone that he started with a folk-style outlaw tale, consciously drawing on Americana the same way that the Basement Tapes did, tells us that we're in for an album that makes no bones about its debts to the old bluesmen and "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "I'll Fly Away", with songs that draw upon old tales passed down through generations and the Bible and on half-forgotten corners of our national consciousness, all told in a language so clean and stripped-down that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the lyrics were ever meant to be songs at all. And you also can see that Dylan's focused on the cross-section of that old America he'd never written about before, on tramps and hoboes and outsiders and men who lived outside the law (honest or not), men that he very easily could have identified with as a kid who threw away his past for any number of pasts he could easily make up. What this adds up to, then, is an album that you can easily surmise is about where Bob Dylan's head was at this stage of his life and what was occupying space up there in the fall of 1967, codified in that sly way of his, where both everything and nothing is revealed. Or he's just singing about lonesome hoboes, I dunno.

Going back to that imaginary person cueing up the record for the first time back when it was released, I can only imagine what he thought while listening to that first minute of the song. There's the opening acoustic strum (shades of "Subterranean Homesick Blues"?), the realization that acoustic guitars, a low-key bass, and snare rim shots are all we're getting for instrumentation, and then Dylan's voice, gruffer and yet clearer than the sneering whine of Blonde on Blonde, all adding up to a brand new revelation in a career already chock full of them. It is this instrumentation, in my opinion, that allows the song to work the way it does; I suppose that straight acoustic would have worked just fine as well, but the gently propulsive backing does give the tale a bit more oomph, whereas a rock band arrangement would obviously have overwhelmed the take and scuppered the whole thing right out of the gate. Dylan claimed that he had wanted to add more instrumentation ("I didn't plan that sound") and had talked to Robbie Robertson about some overdubs, but how would a piano - even a saloon-style piano - or a few guitar licks have really helped this arrangement out? Retrospect definitely makes the arrangements sound just right, and I can't imagine that as the years go by, somebody will say anything different.

I'd like to conjure up that imaginary listener again, one more time, staring at the cover of the album he'd just purchased, at the black and white photo of Dylan with those unknown men - Native Americans? - and still puzzling out what he'd just heard. Maybe he pulls up the needle and cues the title track again, wondering if he'd heard it wrong and Dylan really had snuck in Robertson's nasty little fills or an "Absolutely Sweet Marie"-style organ in there somewhere. Maybe he skips ahead a few tracks, looking for something that sounds more like Highway 61 Revisited, continually scratching his head when he keeps hearing acoustic guitars and muted drums and Dylan singing about something straight out of Sunday school. And maybe, just maybe (this is my hopeful side talking here), he realizes that it doesn't matter that Dylan's taken a brand new direction; this brand new direction, believe it or not, sounds pretty damn good. And that imaginary listener cues up the title track again, listens to that tale of a man who never made a foolish move, and readies himself for what comes next.

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Rob said...

Tony, hi from london, UK. First want to say what an excellent project this is, now have you added to my regular blog reading. Have lots of catching up to do since only recently discovered you.

Such a luxury of the internet age to be able to read informed, witty and elegant prose from across "the Pond" for free, and to have my free music player, Spotify, instantly conjure up the tracks you're writing about - read and listen simultaneously. (I do have all the albums, just find Spotify easier to use !).

Amazing that you're still a twenty-something too !

Just a quick comment: You write "named John Wesley Hardin, by the way - maybe the "g" was added because it sounds better when sung, or Dylan just didn't have an Encyclopedia Britannica handy"

... wasn't that some cute ironic gesture to compensate for the "loss" of the g in blowin' in the wind ? Thought I read that somewhere. Gettin' maybe pretentious about it, one might say the added g was markin' a clear break with the old folksy bob that we last associated with acoustic performance ... probably pushin' my luck with that thought ...

Anyway, thanks again for a great blog.


Cato the Elder said...

Excellent analysis. John Wesley Harding was my favourite Dylan's album for years, before I got into a dylanesque fever and to listen compulsively to all his music, and even now it remains one of the albums I am fondest.

Bill Gullick said...

Dylan's songs are about himself and his experience of life but he uses allegories in order to distance himself from the obvious or personal. This particular song (to me at least) concerns his coming off the road and avoiding he personality cult which had arisen around him "all across the Telegraph (newspaper of that name) his name it did resound" "but no charge held against him could be proved" (the dust of rumours or planting stories in the press which he so much hates). It ends with a typical example or his ironic sense of humour that "he never made a foolish move". A simple but heartfelt statement that he rejected the chaos of touring and how this had damaged his life and how he was finding a new way to live.````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "(cf. Masked and Anonymous, his role in Pat Garrity and Billy the Kid, etc.)." The film is called PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID.

Tony said...

Thank you for the kind words, Rob. Always nice to have an English reader, and I hope you keep commenting. Interesting thought about the "g" in "John Wesley Harding" - Dylan's made his share of thumb-nosing gestures to his folk audience, both overt and subtle, and another one wouldn't surprise me.

Anonymous, thanks for pointing that out. I had a "too much trivia in my brain" slip - Pat Garrity is a former NBA player.

Anonymous said...

A very good post. I still remember bringing the album home and listening to it for the first time. I was in grade 9, a fan of the electric trilogy certainly but a folkie still at this stage of my life.
The album was my favorite for a long time. So many great songs. I think for the first time I sensed the craft behind the writing, but that was more my age than the songs. And , yes a hint in a way, that the Dylan journey was going to be a long one.
This isn't a transition piece, just another step in a great journey, and part of the creation of such a great body of work. And great songs were throw aways, like I'll be your baby tonight..A song that could have been on the most recent album.. with different instrumentation of course..Great stuff, I will go put the CD on now

Craig Kent said...

First off, I'd like to tell you I love reading your blog. Second off, I'd like to tell you that I am that imaginary first listener of John Wesley Harding you wondered about. Do you want to know what it was like for me? Bob Dylan was revered and like a prophet to me and my friends. We had spent hours upon hours listening to and deciphering Blonde On Blonde and once we got our hands on one of the first copies of John Wesley Harding we knew just what to do.

My friends and I were 17 at the time and one lived in the basement of his parents house. There were five of of this night. We all took some very powerful LSD called White Lightning, smoked some dope and lit a candle as we sat crosslegged on the floor watching the candle. Once the acid kicked in we proceeded with the ritual and dropped the needle on the unplayed record. The bareness of the sound was jarring at first but we all soon noticed a rhythm that was lanquid and hypnotizing. One of my friends picked up a flashlight and started to turn it on and off in rhythm to the beat with Bob's voice droning on as he flashed it in our eyes. I actually became hynotized for the first time while under the influence of LSD and it was not entirely pleasant. Bob's voice sounded much too calm for all the treachery he was singing about: Frankie Lee and Judas Priest broke my heart and I wept, Wicked Messengers and cruel Landlords scared the hell out of me and I felt I was out in the wilderness hearing a wildcat growl.

I don't know how long me and my friends sat dazed after the album was over. To say it blew my mind would be an understatement. I was not able to listen to the album again for almost a year I was so afraid just hearing it would pull me back into that hypnotic vortex that I couldn't escape from.

Maybe I should have gotten counseling but time is the great healer. Nowadays it is one of my favorite Dylan albums, right there in a neck to neck tie with about 20 others.

Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here:

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" album rated & commented

Phil D said...

Really enjoy your posts which I have just found. I remember very well the first time I heard JWH - I had no major reaction - I was 15 - but I was with a friend of my older brother who laughed heartily and said "He's gone back to Woody Guthrie" - seeing it as, if nothing else, a curve ball of sorts to his fans and listeners. It was that. I take issue with one thing: JWH - and Big Pink and the Basement Tapes - did not in my opinion anticipate the country/roots/Americana trend that would follow - I don't think that there was any anticipating those trends in 1967 - those records pretty much singlehandedly made that trend happen - of course there was bound to be a reaction to psychedelia, etc., but it took the form it did largely because of those records.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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