CK Retro Review: John Wesley Harding by Bob DylanPosted: May 29, 2013
After a year-and-a-half of silence, Bob Dylan returned to action in the winter after the Summer of Love with 1967’s John Wesley Harding. In typical Dylan fashion, his music zigged while the rest of the world zagged, as the album featured a bunch of hushed, mysterious parables and an earthy sound, far removed from the prevailing psychedelic music of the counterculture. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Down Along The Cove”- The instrumentalists come alive a bit at the end of this penultimate song on the album, but it’s not enough to save it from relative insignificance.
11. “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”- You might expect from that title a somber musical number, but this one has a surprising bit of kick to it. That helps to make up for the fact that the message here, a simple reap-what-you-sow message, is not only easily discernible but also a bit trite.
10. “The Wicked Messenger”- One of the most quizzical songs on an album full of puzzles, “The Wicked Messenger” defies easy interpretation other than to quote the old cliché that says the person who brings the bad news is often the one who gets shot. The image of the messenger’s burning feet casts a pretty harrowing pall over the proceedings.
9. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”- With Pete Drake’s pedal steel clearing the path, it feels like the closing track of John Wesley Harding is pointed in the direction of the album that would follow, Nashville Skyline. It’s all about simplicity here, with Dylan charmingly playing the eager lover and rhyming “moon” and “spoon” to take some of the air out of all the heavy stuff that preceded.
8. “Drifter’s Escape”- Dylan’s tale of justice gone awry and a lightning bolt that delivers the hero from his predicament is given a repetitive melody that seems just a bit odd at first but soon becomes one of the song’s most interesting features. That, along with the kicky rhythm, turns what could have been a moldy parable into a suspenseful tale.
7. “As I Went Out One Morning”- John Wesley Harding gets a reputation sometimes as being musically simple, but it’s only really simple in terms of the instrumentation used. The trio Dylan leads acctually works up interesting variations throughout. On this one, bassist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey work a subtly funky rhythm into a song that, on paper, looks impenetrable. So you can try and figure out what went down and who’s to blame among the narrator, Tom Paine, and the girl in chains, or you can simply groove to it.
6. “Dear Landlord”- In the interim between Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, Dylan made a little music with The Band in Woodstock that would go on to have a life of its own as years passed. “Dear Landlord” is the one song on this album that sounds like a Basement Tapes track, with its meandering melody and Dylan’s drunken piano. Many people read the lyrics as a dig at Bob’s manager Albert Grossman, but it could also be a simple message about the folly and ignorance of treating people poorly only because of their status as underlings.
5. “John Wesley Harding”- Dylan appropriated the name of a real-life outlaw for this song, but, as usual, his creation is untethered by any historical accuracy. His “John Wesley Harding” seems to be a Robin Hood character of sorts, yet the implication is also there that this is a dangerous guy with the skills (and “a gun in ev’ry hand”) to take care of any “situation” that crosses his path. As the album’s opening and title track, it sets the tone for the rest of the record in how Dylan paints all around the center of the story, leaving a gap for our imaginations to fill.
4. “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”- There is a Biblical beauty to the wordplay Dylan uses on this track, singing in a voice so woeful that it’s practically unrecognizable from the firebrand that burned his way through the electric albums. The message seems to be that we should hate the sin but not the sinner, as the narrator finds empathy for someone who cares not a whit for anyone but himself and acts only for his personal gain. “Immigrant” is an interesting term used to describe this character. It seems to imply that, no matter how much wealth or power he has accrued, he cannot truly gain entry to the one location that matters most.
3. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”- Dylan has talked in interviews about how he tried to have every line and every word mean something on this record. While I would argue that is the case with most of his albums, you can see what he means on a song like this one, when every utterance he makes seems to have some sort of import behind it. It’s one of the most tender melodies on the record, and Bob’s vocal captures the wonder and regret of the narrator as he recalls a dream that seems to reveal something about the flaws in his own character.
2. “All Along The Watchtower”- Jimi Hendrix turned this song into something violent and cathartic, and stole its identity in the process. The fact that Dylan has always played Hendrix’ version seems to indicate that he knew that Jimi found the untapped potential in the song. Yet the take on John Wesley Harding, while less impactful, is still a fascinating and beguiling mystery, all hints and clues and anticipation of some sort of approaching metaphorical storm. Hendrix brought that storm with his electric guitar, but the set-up for it is all there in Bob’s original take.
1. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”- Even in a song where Dylan gives us the moral, there are enough nooks and crannies in this one to keep you guessing. While I don’t doubt that Frankie Lee’s ravenous appetites lead to his downfall, there is something pitiable in the way he lacks control of his impulses and actions. Meanwhile, Judas Priest may have all the answers, but he also comes off as a bit of a condescending jerk. Maybe the neighbor boy’s warning that “Nothing is revealed” is the ultimate takeaway from this song and, for that matter, from the album that contains it. Still, thanks to the jaunty acoustic accompaniment, this song is damn catchy nothingness that will keep you coming back until you find something and long after that.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)