Monday, March 29, 2010

'John Wesley Harding' Dylan's most overlooked masterpiece

To understand the impact of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, it is important to look at it within the context of its release. In 1965 and '66, Dylan released three of rock and rolls masterpieces: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Calling these three albums 'rock and roll' may not be accurate because the aura surrounding them has not been matched by anyone since then (including by Dylan).

The lyrics were influenced by French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and the combining of these lyrics with the new 'electric Dylan' revolutionized music. Dylan's writing challenged other musicians, such as The Beatles, to quick focusing so much on love songs. From this point, the musical landscape of rock and roll would be much broader and deeper.

However, Dylan would make another dramatic turn just as his contemporaries were beginning to catch up with him. In July or August of 1966, he suffered a motorcycle wreck, and the extent of his injuries has never been fully explained. Whatever his injuries were, this event gave him the ability to rest.

During his absence, the rock scene explored its outer limits. This culminated with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. For the moment, it seemed like anything was possible in rock and roll.

While this was happening, Dylan quietly began crafting the next stage of his career. During this time, he worked with the musicians that would become The Band, and they recorded dozens of songs that steered Dylan down a completely new path. These new recordings were not officially released until 1975. Therefore, when word got out that Dylan's next album would appear in late 1967, the world was expecting the Dylan of his previous three albums. What would he do to answer The Beatles and the age of psychedelia?

His answer was the simple and understated John Wesley Harding. Featuring only Dylan and three other musicians, he stripped his approach to the core. The songs were acoustic with a little steel guitar on some of them.

The most famous song from this album is 'All Along the Watchtower' though most people probably got their introduction to it through Jimi Hendrix's cover of it. There were no singles released from the album. There were no psychedelic pretensions, and the album came as quite a jolt to those still tripping through Pepperland.

Lyrically, the songs told straightforward stories, so much so that none of the songs included choruses. Plus, there was a lot of Biblical imagery though pinpointing the exact passages being applied can be elusive. Critics often cite 'All Along the Watchtower' as being inspired by sections of Isaiah from the Old Testament. Other songs like 'I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,' 'Dear Landlord,' and 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest' also feature a Biblical feel.

The final two songs, 'Down Along the Cove' and 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' are straight country songs and definitely foreshadow his next album Nashville Skyline.

Songs from John Wesley Harding never appear on the radio. Sometimes when looking at an artist like Dylan who has such a vast catalogue of albums, digging deep into his work can be especially satisfying. This album is an example of that.


Anonymous said...

What radio were you listening to? The rock FM stations were playing JWH songs throughout 68 and 69.
Maybe it doesn't receive as much attention as you would like, but it has been in print and widely available ever since it was issued. There are very few albums from that time that can claim that.

Shindo said...

JWH is a fine album, you know, there are so many overlooked Dylan masterpieces, I don't know where to begin! This is a great start though....

Anonymous said...

I recall the night that JWH came out. It was in the winter and it was snowing real hard in NE. WBCN in Boston played the whole LP because it was a very BIG DEAL. It was the first Dylan album released since his motorcycle accident. I don't remember thinking about whether it was "good" or "bad." It was Dylan and just hearing his voice again was a joy.

Anonymous said...

This is his best album in my opinion.

samba said...

Having lived through that era I quite disagree w/ several of these assertions.It wasn't overlooked in it's day,and it wasn't shock nothing was shocking in those days. And Sgt Pepper's was along way from the outer limits of psychedelia- it just opened the door.