By late 1967, Bob Dylan had pretty much outgrown his “protest period.” In fact, he’d gone from folk/protest to electric back to folk/rock and country-rock. The album John Wesley Harding comes in between Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. (Discounting a greatest hits album.)
According to Wikipedia: “John Wesley Harding shares many stylistic threads with and was recorded around the same time as, the prolific series of home recording sessions with The Band, partly released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes, and released in complete form in 2014 as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete.” (If you happen not to have been around for it, The Basement Tapes were long-rumored (especially by Dylan-worshipping Rolling Stone) and long-anticipated – ME.)
While I haven’t listened to it in a while, Harding is, song for song, one of my favorite Dylan albums. “I didn’t intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound,” Dylan said in 1971. “I would have liked… more steel guitar, more piano. More music… I didn’t sit down and plan that sound.”
There are any number of great songs on this album – the title cut (misnamed for a Texas outlaw), “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “The Wicked Messenger,” and my favorite, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” (Which somehow inspired the name of that raucous band.)
And of course, the great “All Along the Watchtower,” is on this album. There are various interpretations of this song from Dylan’s relationship with his label to any number of Biblical references.
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield./For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman*, let him declare what he seeth./And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed./…And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground –Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21, verses 5–9:
It’s a very mysterious song where, it feels to me like there’s some impending doom. To this day I still love Dylan’s spare, moody original.
Now as good a song as that is, it’s just about as likely to have stayed in the same relative obscurity as the rest of the album were it not for the Jimi Hendrix version. Hendrix was a good songwriter (and as I recall, a pretty good guitarist) and a major Dylan fan.
But I am not going to use that version simply because – great as THAT version is and how much it’s become the standard version- don’t we all know it well enough that we could practically whistle the fucking solo?
So I will instead turn to the Dave Matthews Band. Near as I can tell, DMB have been doing the Hendrix version for years. What I like is that they throw in a partial cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” Both songs are in Amin and the “as we wind on down the road” part of “Stairway” is pretty much the entire “Watchtower” progression. (Amin is a very popular key. The Allmans loved it.)
There is a live version of this with Warren Haynes but minus “Stairway” so I went with the latter. I do not know the name of the guitarist. And for the record, if you recognize the little ditty the bass player is doing at the beginning it’s “Blackbird.”
The audience here does its best to ruin the song completely by ‘singing’ along so Matthews (hopefully intentionally) drags the lyrics out.
Many moons ago, on some long-forgotten late-night TV show I caught a band then called the Turtle Island String Quartet. (Now just Turtle Island Quartet). I have written about them before and in fact, went to see them a few years back. They were known for doing not only, well whatever string quartets do but also for covering rock tunes. Alas, when I saw them, I think the rock guys had moved on.
Nevertheless, here’s their version of “Watchtower” that you won’t soon forget:
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance, a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
*Go Set a Watchman was the name of the (many years later) follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Sources: Wikipedia, the author’s leaky memory, The Book of Isaiah