Revisiting Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’

By Harvey Kubernik

On Dec. 27, 1967, Columbia Records released the Bob Johnston-produced Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding LP. In January, 1968, it was one of the most-tracked albums on countless FM radio stations in the U.S. and all over the world.

Dylan titled the album after an outlaw ballad he’d just written, “John Wesley Harding,” actually based on a true character: John Wesley Hardin, born in Texas in 1853.

Author Clinton Heylin, in his book “Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994,” describes John Wesley Harding as “Dylan’s most perfectly executed album; that austerity (in sound and lyric) is, frankly, a key element. The fact that Dylan wrote ‘John Wesley Harding’ self-consciously as ‘an album of songs’ in a month and a day, and recorded it in just three afternoons, gives the album a unity all its own.”

Heylin suggests that John Wesley Harding “is an album full of outlaws, drifters, immigrants, messengers and saints.” Heylin then quotes a 1968 Dylan interview concerning his writing methods for the LP.

“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.”

In due time, Jimi Hendrix, K-9, Dave Mason, TSOL, Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, Michael Hedges, U2, Neil Young, Wilton Felder and Eddie Vedder on the Dylan-inspired soundtrack to “I’m Not There” in 2007, all took swings at “All Along The Watchtower.”

Director Mike Nichols’ Christmas 2007 “Charlie Wilson’s War” theatrical release even had the original Hendrix master recording of “All Along The Watchtower” in the movie trailer.

“ ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was always one of my favorite songs to play with Neil (Young),” offers drummer Jim Keltner. “Amazing song. Jimi Hendrix, Neil. Playing it with Neil was always a huge amount of fun, because of the way he plays, his sound. The song just allowed him to soar, completely fly. And it allows for a big, massive wide beat. It has so many powerful elements. Playing it with Bob Dylan was the ultimate, of course,” declares Keltner.

Over the decades, the John Wesley Harding disc yielded renditions of “The Wicked Messenger” by Rod Stewart & The Faces and Patti Smith. Julie Driscoll cut “I Am A Lonesome Hobo.” Fairport Convention, Joe Cocker and, later, Janis Joplin, did “Dear Landlord.” Linda Ronstadt, Marianne Faithfull, Rita Coolidge, Georgie Fame, Emmylou Harris, The Hollies and even Goldie Hawn all sang “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Joan Baez and Robyn Hitchcock tackled “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” and there is also Judy Collins’ exquisite reading of “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” also recorded by Gene Clark in melancholic fashion. And Hendrix committed to tape “Drifter’s Escape” — all from Dylan’s biblical and beatific-inspired disc.

Bob Johnston’s breathtaking production resumé includes Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison and San Quentin live LP’s, Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme and Bookends, and the first three enduring albums of Leonard Cohen: Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, and Love Songs. Johnston also composed the music to a Cohen lyric “Come Spend the Morning” that Lee Hazelwood covered.

Johnston’s studio credits include efforts with Moby Grape, Willie Nelson, Tracy Nelson, Carl Perkins, Lindisfarne, Burl Ives, plus additional Bob Dylan long-form studio products:  Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning.

Fast-forward to 1967, after the notorious motorcycle accident in July 1966 that, among other things, sidelined Dylan (at least in the public eye) for a better part of a year. Johnston met up with Dylan again at a Ramada Inn in Nashville, Tenn., before working on John Wesley Harding together.

In fall 2007, I interviewed Johnston from his home in Hawaii. “He played me some songs and asked, ‘What do you think about a bass, drum and guitar?’ ‘I think it would be f**kin’ brilliant if you had a steel guitar.’ ‘You know anybody?’ ‘Yeah, Pete Drake.’ He was workin’ with Chet (Atkins), so I got somebody to take his place and brought him over,” Johnston recalls. “Pete said, ‘Can I play some rock ’n’ roll?’ And I told him, ‘That’s what you’re here for.’ Charlie McCoy played a lot of instruments on that album. He played four, five or 20 instruments on every record.

“When I produced Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, they all knew what I wanted,” Johnston chuckles. “(Drummer) Kenny Buttrey was a genius by being as good as he was and by me f**kin’ with everybody. I used to f**k around to Kenny, and I’d say, ‘Your God damn drum is dragging, and you’re bringing everybody else down… ’ And he’d get pissed off. ‘My drum isn’t dragging!’ He’d be mumbling to himself, and everybody else would be laughing. Then, he’d say, ‘Can I play anything else?’”

Johnston, as he did previously in the Nashville sessions for Blonde On Blonde, took steps to remove the studio bafflers, a floor space dividing device used to prohibit microphone leakage and the instruments of the musicians from bleeding into each other’s separate sound booths during the sessions.

“I would place glass around Dylan for recording,” relates Bob Johnston. “He had a different vocal sound. I didn’t make his different vocal sound. He always had different sounds on. I never wanted to be (Phil) Spector… and while the rest of the world was doing an album as big as Blonde On Blonde, which everybody was — the more musicians they could get, the better it was. (But) we went in with four people… in the middle of a psychedelic world!

“What I did was put a bunch of microphones all over the room and up on the ceiling,” Johnston explains. “I would use echo when everything got through, and I could do that as much as I wanted. I wanted it to sound better than anything else sounded ever, and I wanted it to be where everybody could hear it. And I don’t know what Dylan would have been if he stayed in New York with those people, and been mixed like that. And I know he would have never done that shit like he did in Nashville,” Johnston insists.

During this exact period, when John Wesley Harding was birthed, the pop music landscape was virtually littered with post-Sgt. Pepper spin-offs. It speaks volumes that producer Bob Johnston and Bob Dylan both were thinking along similar, fundamental lines.

In order to fathom the importance and overall impact of John Wesley Harding, one must look at the social and musical climate of the time. To a certain extent, The Beatles’ White Album, issued later in 1968, can be seen as the sonic and compositional biological stepchild of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding studio results. Johnston allowed Dylan’s simple, dark vision to happen without interference.

John Wesley Harding was written and recorded by Dylan in six weeks between October and November of 1967, in the collective aftermath of Sgt. Pepper.
“The ‘album concept’ and progressive-pop movement, which was virtually unearthed with Pepper, was indeed the order of the day. But, the Summer Of Love was, indeed, over, and people — especially the hippie subculture — were going to have to face some hard facts and truths… and reality was about to come face to face with a top-heavy psychedelic mind-set. The only answer was to get one’s feet back on the ground. Psychedelics were not, as it turns out, going to save the world,” remarks writer Matthew Greenwald, a Mamas & Papas biographer.

John Wesley Harding served as the subsequent blueprint for the emerging singer/songwriter genre and country-rock.

In Howard Sounes’ “Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan,” Charlie McCoy told Sounes, “Kenny and I were amazed at the change from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding. The recording was different. Of course, he sounded different. He looked different… when he first came for Blonde on Blonde, it was the wild fright wig. The next time he came back his hair was a lot shorter. His voice sounded different… we just flew through that stuff.” The three John Wesley Harding recording sessions totaled nine hours.

Kenny Buttrey also adds in Sounes’ literary journey, “We went in and knocked ’em out like demos. It seemed to be the rougher, the better. He could hear a mistake, laugh a little bit to himself as if {to say}, ‘Great, man, that’s just what I’m looking for.’ All the lyrics on the new songs were penned before Dylan arrived in Nashville, so he was ready to start immediately. As McCoy puts it, ‘He knew everything.’”

On John Wesley Harding, the bass carries the melody of each song, so Dylan can strum simple chords and deliver the words with confidence. The voice is less raspy than on Blonde On Blonde, much less mellowed and affected than what came later on Nashville Skyline.

In fact, McCoy’s bass is ostensibly a secondary lead instrument throughout the album, neatly criss-crossing with Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar runs. Dylan plays piano on “Dear Landlord” and “Down Along the Cove,” but on the latter song, the steel guitar is mixed over the piano. The SACD format gives the piano more presence. The track also has a decidedly Sun Records vibe; the only thing missing is a slap-back echo on McCoy’s bass guitar.
Author Paul Williams, “Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, the Music of Bob Dylan Vol. One and Bob Dylan — Watching the River Flow” in 2007 e-mailed me his own early ’68 review of the album:

“‘Dear Landlord’ features some great drumming. Dylan’s piano playing is fiery; we can hear a rock and roll/Chicago blues orchestra in his head as he beats out the riff and shouts into it, and just as they do on the ‘amplified folk’ performances, bassist McCoy and drummer Buttrey pick up on the energy of the song and run with it, unconcerned that whatever is happening here doesn’t fit the parameters of any kind of rock or folk or country or gospel or blues or jazz session they’ve ever heard or played on. Doesn’t matter — the music itself tells them what to do, and they jump to it.”

In 2002, Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven, emerged on the radio dial, hosting “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” a weekly two-hour music show heard more than 200 radio stations nationally and globally. In 2004, Little Steven joined Sirius Satellite Radio as creative consultant, launching his own 24-hour “Little Steven’s Underground Garage “channel.

In a phone interview from Philadelphia from his tour with Bruce Springsteen & The Street Band in late 2007, guitarist/DJ Little Steven offered, “We usually don’t play a lot of Bob’s things that classic rock stations are playing, like ‘Tangled Up In Blue.’ I’ve programmed Rod Stewart and The Faces covering ‘The Wicked Messenger’ from John Wesley Harding and Jimi Hendrix doing ‘All Along The Watchtower’ from the same album.

“Dylan pretty much walked away from rock ’n’ roll for a minute, you know, and started getting back to his roots and taking them to some other place, more the country and folk world where he came from,” Steven remembers.

“People didn’t know what to make of it at the time,” reflects Van Zandt. “It was a strange sort of new Bob Dylan that emerged after his July 1966 motorcycle accident. Jimi Hendrix did more to promote John Wesley Harding than anybody. It was one of the most remarkable records ever made, of course. And the fact that Jimi picked up on (“All Along The Watchtower”) from that (LP) was unusual, (because at the time the album) was not a very popular Bob Dylan album and made everybody go back to it. And, I’m telling you, that’s how powerful that record was! Everybody went back to John Wesley Harding after hearing Hendrix, thinking, ‘You know, maybe I missed something? Look what Jimi Hendrix did with it. Look what The Faces did with it.’ It worked. It’s a terrific album but sort of subtle, compared to Blonde On Blonde that most people consider Bob’s peak,” cites Van Zandt.

James Cushing, Ph.D., the author of four poetry books who teaches literature and creative writing in Central Coast California at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is the host of “Miles Ahead” and “Bob Dylan’s Lunch,” weekly radio programs on KCPR-FM. (www.kcpr.org).

“The songs on John Wesley Harding contain mysteries as old as those in any ‘Harry Smith Anthology’ piece,” notes Dr. Cushing. “Like in ‘As I Went Out One Morning,’ who is the ‘Tom Paine’ who owns that slave girl? What St. Augustine gets ‘put out to death?’ Well, why does Clarence Ashley’s cuckoo bird only fly on July 4th?’ As Dylan was recovering from his motorcycle accident, one of the things that happened during that recovery was that Allen Ginsberg came by and brought him a whole bunch of books: American poetry, English poetry, French poetry, Blake and Shelley anthologies, W.H. Auden, and the first line in one of the books is ‘As I Walked Out One Evening…’”

Cushing provides additional insight about Jimi Hendrix’s “Watchtower” and “Drifter” sound endeavors.

“Jimi turns sketches into murals. Did Jimi Hendrix ever ‘understand’ the words to ‘Watchtower?’ He messes them up on the studio LP and on every live performance I’ve heard. No matter — he re-conceived the song as a dramatic piece for guitar orchestra, acoustic/electric, and how many overdubs? Jimi Hendrix offers fullness of detail where Bob Dylan offers mere suggestions. Hendrix’s ‘Drifter’ is essentially the same idea without the newness. Dylan himself acknowledged Hendrix’s version of ‘Watchtower’ on his scorching version (with The Band) from 1975’s Before The Flood. When Dylan does it, the voice and the narrative in their simplest sense are front and center. When Hendrix does it, the vocal part is only one section of a larger essentially orchestral conception involving different guitar sounds, dynamics. Hendrix is really orchestrating it. In concert now, Dylan sort of does the number as a tribute to Hendrix,” says Cushing.

“Drifter’s Escape” is a whole reading of the Kakfa novel “The Trial” in two and a half minutes. It also resonates with John Wesley Harding, where the outlaw is the hero. It describes a situation where all judgments are becoming impossible.

“Dear Landlord” is often referred to as an ode to former Dylan manager Albert Grossman. Maybe Grossman himself first started that rumor. “Dear Albert” would have fit the rhyme scheme quite easily. It’s a marvelous balance of abstraction and specificity. After 40 years, I think all of us are still wondering who the f**k the landlord is. It is probably a controlling force in Dylan’s environment where he has a complex ambivalent relationship.

“I know you’ve suffered much,” Dylan has some sympathy for the force that is confining him.

“’I Pity the Poor Immigrant” gives indications that the ‘speaker’ of the song likely is Christ, given the lines “who falls in love with wealth itself / and turns his back on me.” Judy Collins’ excellent 1968 cover (from “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”) brings this point home with brilliant, understated conviction. Gene Clark also waxed the song in a similar, dazzling manner during the same period — although the cut wasn’t released until 1998’s U.K. compilation Flying High.

“The Wicked Messenger” was the real end of one phase of Dylan’s career and the beginning of the next one. It’s an apocalyptic message. It’s a very scary song. It has to do with what is the role of the messenger.  Bob Dylan was drafted into that role right after “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

The last two songs on John Wesley Harding are a preview of Dylan’s next LP, Nashville Skyline, with the Sun Records-inspired “Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

I was not surprised when I first heard Nashville Skyline. This is an extension of what “Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” delivered. Dylan found that it was possible for him to write simple love songs after he had been an ambiguous messenger. Only “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” has a “chorus” or “middle-8,” the rest of the songs have only verses. The composition of the songs suggests sparseness, avoidance of the repeated element and a focus on the narrative thrust.

Cushing presents evidence that Dylan’s vocals on John Wesley Harding are “immediately familiar, but what is different is the scolding, accusatory tone of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ has been softened, and the romantic yearning in ‘BOB’ has been curved. He sounds more like a man speaking to men than an angry man scolding a woman, or a lover seducing a woman. There are no songs about girls on ‘JWH’ and no songs that use the verse chorus verse structure. They are all verses no chorus — never done that before or since.”

John Wesley Harding works together sequentially so well the same way that the songs of Sgt. Pepper work so well together — not in terms of creating a narrative, but in a sense of all adding up to a certain collective statement. A certain description of a mental, emotional and intuitive place in the mind that is both new and old. This album is timeless.

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