Bob Dylan Countdown #154: “John Wesley Harding”

When the songwriter himself has no idea what a song is about, woe betide the know-it-all writer who tries to describe that song himself. Yet that’s the task before me, and I’ll come out guns blazing, much like the title character here might. Whether I hit anything with this spray of verbiage, well, that’s another story.

Dylan may or may not have been referencing the historical outlaw John Wesley Hardin with this sly title track to his enigmatic 1967 album. He claimed he used the name because it fit the meter, but there is one similarity between the song’s anti-hero and the real-life one who downed a passel of men in in 19th century Texas. Hardin believed that all of his killings, and there were somewhere between 30 and 50 depedning on the accounts, were completely justified. “John Wesley Harding,” meanwhile, “was never known to hurt and honest man.”

I’m guessing that Dylan had more in mind in choosing the name than just the way the syllables were arranged. While it’s doubtful too much of his audience outside of Texas had any clue about some long-dead gunfighter, Bob’s affinity for such larger-than-life characters leads me to believe that the name was chosen carefully, with the “g” added on to further obscure the situation.

Of course, Bob changes the story around to his liking, making things far more prosaic, less fantastic. His character doesn’t meet an ignominious end while playing dice as Hardin did. “Harding” just sort of carries on at the end of the song, no dramatic victory or defeat to signal his fate. His lone action in the song is to settle a “situation” in second verse by lending a “helping hand.” That the hand was probably equipped with a six-shooter isn’t deemed by Dylan to be worthy of a mention.

“John Wesley Harding” is surely baffling, but I don’t buy its creator’s assertions of ignorance about its meaning. Maybe Dylan is talking about the folly of mythologizing heroes who don’t deserve it, whether they be hardened outlaws or famously rock stars. This song seems to state that they’re all just men, and their actions should speak for themselves without any embellishment.

I’m taking my shot with that story. Let’s hope that my aim is as true as “John Wesley Harding” is mysterious.

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