John Wesley Harding


Commentary

Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s most signficant early influence. Dylan has spoken freely about Guthrie’s impact, once referring to himself as a “Woody Guthrie jukebox.” His influence diminished after The Times They Are A’Changin’, as Dylan was exposed to other artists, such as the Beats and French Symbolists.

Pretty Boy FloydBut Woody’s inspiration never went away. John Wesley Harding is clearly related to Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, a story of a good-hearted gangster. Consider these lines from Guthrie’s song:

But a many a starvin’ farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.

Others tell you ’bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal,
Underneath his napkin
Left a thousand-dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole car load of groceries
Come with a note to say:

“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,
You say that I’m a thief.
Here’s a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.”

Compare with these lines from John Wesley Harding.

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man

Listen to Dylan’s terrific cover of Pretty Boy Floyd, which is included on Folkways: A Vision Shared, a tribute to the music of Guthrie and Leadbelly.

Dylan’s explanation of what he was attempting to do on John Wesley Harding:

What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words. There’s no line that you can stick your finger through; there’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler. Each line has something. 1

From this comment we can see that Dylan understood that the weakest element of his earlier writing was an occasional unwillingness to edit out weak or unnecessary lines. This song, like the others on the album, is certainly much sparser and more controlled than his earlier work.

Unfortunately, this new-found terseness is also this song’s downfall. The lyrics are too spare, the song too brief. Although the story may not include unnecessary words, it also fails to work up any narrative force. It fails to reach any significant conclusion.

Guthrie’s song ends with a fierce indictment of a government that is a bigger thief than an outlaw:

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

Dylan’s song, on the other hand, just ends with some vague pronouncements about Harding’s abilities to outwit the authorities. Dylan said in an interview that he originally planned a much longer song, but he got tired and stopped. In this case, by getting rid of the occasional excessive exuberance Dylan lost some of his magic as well. Maybe it’s like Tom Waits said: “If I exorcise my devils well my angels may leave too“.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Harding is clearly inspired by the life of real-life outlaw, John Wesley Hardin. Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas in 1853. Hardin killed his first man at age 15. He was just getting warmed-up. According to all sources, including his own autobiography, Hardin was involved in all sorts of criminal activity and killed many men, generally estimated at around 30 to 40. 2

According to his undoubtedly self-serving autobiography 3, Hardin never killed, as Dylan says, an “honest man”. As Harding tells it – despite his involvement in literally dozens of gun battles – he was always the victim of circumstance or the evil intent of bad men. Hardin is often credited as having said, “I never killed a man who didn’t need killing”. (A good line, although it has been credited to many others as well.)

Of course, John Wesley was in reality a horrible person, a cold-blooded killer. As Lawrence Block writes: Hardin was “a racist, homicidal sociopath with no discernible redeeming qualities other than admirable hand-eye coordination. He killed a lot of people and lived a surprising length of time before another of nature’s noblemen [sarcasm alert] gunned him down.” 4

Yet, for much of the population of Texas, Hardin was an outlaw hero. Hardin’s murders occurred not long after the Civil War, during the time of Reconstruction. Federal troops, the State Police, and blacks were none too popular at the time in confederate Texas. Men that shot them, like Hardin, were celebrated, much less condemned. Town folk lined the streets to view him in his coffin. 5

dylan and cashIt’s an open question as to why Dylan decided to write a song that glorifies a murdering racist. The most likely explanation is probably that he didn’t know the real story in detail, but just liked the sound of the name. Johnny Cash wrote and recorded an outlaw ballad about Hardin in 1965 (Hardin Wouldn’t Run), so maybe that was the trigger. Dylan’s an artist, not a historian, so I’ll cut him a lot of slack. (BTW, the song Joey, released on the 1976 album Desire, also celebrates a notorious mobster.)

John Wesley Harding has never been played live, perhaps an indication that Dylan has had second thoughts about the song. Or not.

 


LYRICS

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man

’Twas down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about
With his lady by his side
He took a stand
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out
For he was always known
To lend a helping hand

All across the telegraph
His name it did resound
But no charge held against him
Could they prove
And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move

Notes:

  1. Goldmine, May 24, 2011
  2. Gunfighters, DVD – Wellspring, 2004
  3. The Life of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself
  4. Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, & Thieves. p. 106
  5. Gunfighters, DVD – Wellspring, 2004

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