All Along the Watchtower is arguably the best track on John Wesley Harding. John Hinchey, the author of Like a Complete Unknown, says it’s “far and away, the best song on John Wesley Harding, and it’s one of Dylan’s most potent creations.” Robert Shelton says it is “perhaps the album’s high point”. Could be, although there are many excellent songs on the album.
One could argue perhaps that a few songs on Dylan’s mid-sixties albums suffer from excessive verbosity (like Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands). On John Wesley Harding Dylan occasionally errors the other direction. A case in point is the title track, John Wesley Harding, which doesn’t provide the reader enough information to really discern the author’s theme. But on All Along the Watchtower, he treads the needle like a Steve Nash pass through heavy traffic. The song, although extremely brief, invites a plethora of interpretations, invokes numerous historical references, and creates a cinematic visual landscape in the listener’s mind.
Like most of the songs on the album, Dylan sets the narrative in what seems to be the American Wild West. “Two riders are approaching’ clearly evokes the image of the outlaw, maybe a Clint Eastwood type, riding into town with a cigar between his teeth, ready for a showdown.
The song is clearly another of Dylan’s “the apocalypse is coming” songs, similar to Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, or Slow Train Coming. Although exactly what is coming is not stated explicitly, something big is clearly on the horizon for the “princes” and “barefoot servants” in the walled fortress. A “wildcat” is roaring, and the “two riders” that are approaching clearly signaling something ominous on the horizon.
Many commentators have pointed out that the lyrics echo lines in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21, verses 5-9.
5 Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
7 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:
8 And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
9 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.
Shelton cites an interesting observation made by Gabrielle Goodchild concerning the meaning of this biblical connection [ref]Robert Shelton, No Direction Home p. 393[/ref]:
The watchtower seems related to the fortified city as a recurring image for the moral state of man or the body politic. Here the moral order seems to be threatened by the duality Dylan sees within himself of clown [the joker] and holy pickpocket [the thief].
Shelton notes that Dylan mixes “colloquial speech with archaic setting and personae.” This technique is of course, reminiscent of other Dylan songs such as Highway 61. He also notes that the joker is used in a similar fashion in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Many have speculated on the identity of the joker and the thief. Is Dylan the joker? Is he the thief? Is the thief Jesus (“I will come to you as a thief” – Revelations 2:5)? Perhaps they are the same person, as suggested by Jokerman author Aidan Day, who sees “the joker and the thief as different aspects of a single person, engaged in “self-dialogue” about issues of creativity and business”. John Hinchey suggests that the joker and the thief are “the profane and the sacred aspects of trickster, the mythic master of limits and boundaries. The difference between these two figures, here and throughout Dylan’s work, is that the joker merely evades limits; the thief finds ways to render them permeable.”
To me, this song – like others on John Wesley Harding – signals a dramatic change in Dylan’s worldview. The albums immediately proceeding show a pronounced beat/existential attitude, a nihilistic drift. This attitude changes significantly on this album, and especially with this song. I tend to agree with John Herdman’s thought, as quoted by James Dunlap: “John Wesley Harding represents a search for a religious solution to life’s meaning.” (Bob Dylan Anthology Volume 2 – 20 Years of ISIS Essay by James Dunlap)
The performance keeps with the minimalist approach of the other songs on the album, a strummed guitar, over a bass and drum. Dylan uses his harmonica to accentuate the tension of the lyric, ending with a solo that seems to add a question mark to the entire proceeding. Of course, many casual rock fans are under the impression that All Along the Watchtower is a Jimi Hendrix song. It’s understandable, since Hendrix really reworks the song musically, making it his own. Generally, covers of Dylan’s songs pale in comparison to the original. But Hendrix’s is damn good.
Herb Bowie of Reason to Rock makes some interesting observations.
The third musical element I want to comment on, and the one that really frames and defines the whole song, is Jimi’s repeated, gradually progressing ascents up the scale with blistering notes. Here is what I mean, the first time it appears, at the beginning of the first guitar break, between the first and second verses. (Audio clip – 16K.) Here is what it sounds like at the end of the second, and longer, guitar break, between the second and third verses. (Audio clip – 40K.) And here, finally, is the way it sounds at the end of the song. (Audio clip – 220K.) Notice how Jimi seems to be gradually reaching for a note that he only finally hits at the end of the song. And then when he gets there, he repeats it, over and over, making a high keening sound, representing not only the howling wind referred to in the last line, but that coming conflict that the song so clearly prepares us for. And the music ends on this note, as do the lyrics, without resolution, but clearly pointing forwards to some anticipated future act of liberation.
This is simply a brilliant collaboration between songwriter and musician, the accompaniment extending and reinforcing the meaning and drama of the lyrics, and showcasing the unique possibilities of the electric guitar along with nothing more than a bass, drum kit and acoustic guitar.
Dylan performs Watchtower with great frequency. According to bobdylan.com, as of this writing, he’s played more than any other song, 2,170 times, 161 more times than Like A Rolling Stone. In the booklet accompanying Biograph, Dylan says: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
Not surprisingly, versions of the song appear on many Dylan live albums, including Before the Flood, At Budokan, Dylan and the Dead, and MTV Unplugged. On the Dylan and the Dead and Before the Flood albums it’s performed in a rock style, undoubtedly influenced by the Hendrix version. I still prefer the original, with the MTV version a distant second.
“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