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.