Delve deeper into Bob Dylan's 'John Wesley Harding' album: Part II

In Part II of our look at Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, we study the impact the record had on music, its instrumental brilliance and the breadth of human emotion and intelligence contained within its lyrics.
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In Part II of our look at Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, we study the impact the record had on music, its instrumental brilliance and the breadth of human emotion and intelligence contained within its lyrics.

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 La

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