One Song/Three Versions – All Along the Watchtower

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

23 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – All Along the Watchtower

  1. With the super well-known Hendrix version, one sometimes forgets it was actually Bob Dylan who wrote and first recorded the tune. I agree with you that while perhaps less spectacular, Dylan’s original is pretty good. In fact, this makes me want to listen to the entire “John Wesley Harding” album. To date, I’ve only heard some of the tracks.

    I also like the two versions you picked here. Dave Matthews’ bass player’s “Blackbird” rendition is pretty neat. At first, I was a bit underwhelmed with the band’s take of “All Along the Watchtower,” but it gets a lot better as it goes on. The weaving in of “Stairway” is nicely done!

    I remember you featured Turtle Island Quartet before. They are just amazing musicians. What a cool idea to render this tune with a string quartet!


    1. Yeah, give the album a listen. It’s got a certain feel to it, a certain mood that he captures somehow. As to “Blackbird,” I kept saying to myself, What is that SONG? Then it clicked in.

      I wish I could have posted the Warren Haynes version but it didn’t have “Stairway.” As to Turtle Island, I remember seeing them and I’d had a bad day at work. So it was a tough night and on top of that I was bummed that they didn’t do any rock stuff. I went back to the post and added in the link to the other post which now also has a Tiny Desk performance.. Also, if you go on YouTube, you’ll find a nice selection of Turtle Quartet rock stuff. It’s a nice change from the shit we listen to.

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        1. Interesting. I hadn’t picked up on the bass playing. Overall, the songs are so strong, the playing so good. Dylan in his prime. I love the lines in “Frankie Lee.” Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road. Yes, indeed.

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  2. I know the Hendrix one is pretty overexposed, but full credit for transforming a quirky Biblical fable into a full-blown rock epic. It’s like Respect where a cover becomes the definitive version.


    1. No argument here. Truthfully, I never get tired of it. But since we all know it, in a sense, we get four. And two of these are based entirely on the Hendrix version, Turtle Island playing his solo. Even Dylan plays it that way.


  3. Go Set a Watchman has sat on my bookshelves since it was published and not yet been read as, by all accounts, the early draft versions of the characters are quite different and there are still questions as to whether it was published against her will…

    HOWEVER… What a song…. I still think Hendrix’ version is immense no matter how many times I hear it, I try and think how much of a kick in the delicates it would’ve been to hear that bursting from the radio the first time in ’68… taking that impending sense of doom you mention and giving it more of an apocalyptic feel, it seemed perfect for the times then (how many Vietnam helicopter scenes has it soundtracked?) and I still love it.

    Of the covers here I give it to the Turtle Island Quartet, it’s nice to hear the melody given new lift in this way.

    Ed Ved did a cracking over of it for the I’m Not There film and soundtrack and PJ have given it a good alt-rock kick live a fair few times since.


    1. My understanding is that “Watchman'” really makes Atticus Finch out to be somewhat of a racist, disappointing legions of Gregory Peck fans. FWIW, we saw the play with Jeff Daniels in NYC a few years back. Powerful if a bit obvious stuff. We celebrate that book here and yet practice racism every single day of the week. I guess it makes us feel good, gives us a little pat on the back.

      There was so much good stuff bursting from the radio back then I weep to think about it. Beggars Banquet, Astral Weeks,, Big Pink, the White Album, Village Green Preservation Society, Lady Soul. All 1968.

      But yeah, I never get tired of the Hendrix version. Need to learn that solo someday. I just learned the one to “Foxey Lady.”

      I love Turtle Island. Listen to their Crossroads or Hey Joe sometime. The kicker is that they play the solos. As to Dylan himself, I think I just made Christian a fan. He listened to John Wesley Harding and flipped for it.

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      1. That’s similar to what I’ve heard.

        Turning someone on to Dylan is a result and via John Wesley Harding no less – one hell of an entry point. I think mine was either Blood on the Tracks or Freewheelin


        1. I hadn’t much thought about it before but album-wise mine would have been either Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde. .The Fab Four used to listen to Freewheelin’ religiously when it was released.

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  4. No bells and whistles here Doc just a very good guitarist (musician) doing his thing. Have liked Mason’s version for a long time. He’s still doing it justice.


        1. Hell yeah, that’s right. Of course. Mason was on that album. In fact he played guitar and sang on that tune. I see now why CB took some time off. He’s taking time to study to take over ME’s job of dispensing random music trivia.

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        2. No taking over from the master. I just love Jimi’s version and being a Traffic nut I dug the connection. I didnt hear Bob’s version until years later. I was cutting my music teeth with Jimi, Cream and the like. That music shaped a young CB’s mind. Had to pop in and say hello to my old friend and dig a couple tunes.
          (My first foray since I went fishing. Later fella)

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        3. One last thing – a present (of sorts) before you go get the pole back out.

          While I know he is not big on lists I know CB IS big on Westerns. Herewith, the British paper, the Independent, lays out their 20 best Westerns of all time:

          Ride Lonesome
          Vera Cruz
          Winchester 73
          One-Eyed Jacks
          Rio Bravo
          15 .My Darling Clementine
          The Ox-Bow Incident
          Butch Cassidy
          The Gunfighter
          Ride the High Country
          The Magnificent Seven
          Red River
          High Noon
          Once Upon a Time in the West
          The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
          The Wild Bunch
          The Searchers

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  5. Last thought on your take. I really wanted to know what you thought of Masons guitar work. You answered in spades. You come at it from a guitarists angle and put it into musicians language. My ear just digs it.

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