BOB DYLAN – ” John Wesley Harding ” Released 27th December 1967

Posted: December 27, 2017 in MUSIC
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In the autumn of 1967, Bob Dylan took a mysterious trip to Nashville. “As I recall, it was just on a kind of whim that Bob went down,” Robbie Robertson, who had spent much of that summer wood shedding with Dylan and the rest of the Band in upstate New York, would later say. To this day, no one knows for sure when Dylan wrote many of the 12 songs he recorded on his secretive visit. He hadn’t played a single one of them during his mythic sessions in the basement of “Big Pink” near Woodstock that year, and he reputedly composed several of the best new tunes (“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “Drifter’s Escape”) during his two-day train ride from New York to Nashville. Once there, he knocked out his eighth album in just three sessions in a local studio. “We did the whole thing in nine, nine and a half hours,” says Charlie McCoy, who returned from the Blonde on Blonde sessions to play bass on the new material. “He was focused. And he never used a lyric sheet. To memorize those lyrics, with all those double meanings, was impressive.”

Bob Dylan released his eighth LP “John Wesley Harding” on December. 27th, 1967. This record marked Dylan’s return to acoustic music and traditional roots, after three albums of electric rock music.

The album was well received by critics and enjoyed solid sales, reaching #2 on the US charts and topping the UK charts. The commercial performance was considered remarkable considering that Dylan had kept Columbia from releasing the album with much promotion or publicity. Less than three months after its release, John Wesley Harding was certified gold by the RIAA.

“All Along the Watchtower” became one of his most popular songs after it was recorded by Jimi Hendrix the following year. How long did it take for you to realize that “All Along the Watchtower” was not written by Hendrix?

John Wesley Harding came as a shock to fans, and decades later, it stands alone in Dylan’s discography – a hard pivot away from the revolutionary rock & roll masterpieces that preceded it, and equally distant from anything else he’d done or would do. Its tightly crafted country-folk songs lack traditional choruses but teem with cryptic tales and strange warnings. “There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath,” Allen Ginsberg later said of the approach to songwriting that Dylan adopted after Blonde on Blonde“All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental.” Dylan himself traced the change to his 1966 motorcycle crash: “I thought I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before,” he recalled in 1969. “But I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Dylan began incorporating explicit religious language into his lyrics; much has been made of Beatty Zimmerman’s report around this time that her son kept “a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study.” The death of Dylan’s early idol Woody Guthrie, on October 3rd, 1967, less than a month before recording began, may well have influenced songs like “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” (a surreal riff on the labor-rally folk standard “Joe Hill”).

The sound of the album was bracingly austere, which Dylan later explained as a reaction to the “very indulgent” psychedelic orchestration of albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandCasting aside his own ambitious arrangements on the previous year’s Blonde on Blondehe called back only two of his sidemen from that album – McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums – and kept his interactions with them at a bare minimum. “He didn’t talk to us, which was unusual,” McCoy says. “Just did not communicate. I think he appreciated what we were doing. It was hard to tell.”

When I Paint My Masterpiece: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t recognize the other three men in the photo on the album’s cover. Flanking Dylan on his left and right are sibling Bengali minstrels Luxman and Purna Das, the latter of whom has performed in more than 140 countries. Behind them is a local carpenter named Charlie Joy. Legend has it that if you turn the album cover upside down, you can see an image of The Beatles in the knot of the tree. While photographer John Berg acknowledges the resemblance, he denies that the likeness was intentional.

It’s All Good: The gem of the collection, of course, remains “All Along the Watchtower,” an urgent tale that centre’s around a cryptic conversation between a joker and a thief. While fans and academics alike have tried to make sense of the song’s sparse narrative for decades, an acoustic strum, a howling harmonica, and an ominous drumbeat tell us all we need to know: that something grim — perhaps even apocalyptic — is about to go down, and the characters best get away while they still can. Jimi Hendrix would go on to transform the simple acoustic song into an expansive jam full of portent and electricity. For what it’s worth, Dylan preferred the guitar god’s version and styled his own performances of the song after Hendrix from then on.

It Ain’t Me, Babe: Near the middle of the album sits “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” a rambling morality play that sticks out among its more laconic brethren. While Dylan does offer us a moral at the story’s conclusion, most listeners will probably echo the sentiments muttered under the breath of the boy in the penultimate stanza: “Nothing is revealed.”

Blowin’ in the Wind: “Outside in the distance/ A wildcat did growl/ Two riders were approaching/ The wind began to howl” — from “All Along the Watchtower”

Closing track “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” offers a welcome respite after 11 tracks that make you feel like you didn’t pay enough attention in Sunday school or your Bible as literature class. The ambling send-off holds no grand mysteries, offering only the promise of a bottle and some companionship for the night. We’ll take it.

While Dylan has used “All Along the Watchtower” (Setlist.fm shows it’s his most-played song) as a thundering closer for hundreds of performances on his Never Ending Tour, other songs from John Wesley Harding, like “Drifter’s Escape” and “The Wicked Messenger,” have joined “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” as semi-regular inclusions between better-known fare.

John Wesley Harding found a very different Dylan returning to his first proper recording after his infamous motorcycle crash and sessions with The Band at Big Pink. More a collection of acoustic parables than anything else, the album is noted for its simple arrangements, economical lyrics, and Biblical qualities. Gone is the kinetic electricity and fountains of language gushing forth on previous releases, yet there’s something appealing to these simple, yet still mysterious, tales, especially when absorbed as a whole. While bands like The Beatles were pushing boundaries, Dylan — who insisted the record be released without publicity or a single — seemed to be in retreat. Regardless, the album climbed the charts in 1968 and has grown in esteem among both fans and critics ever since.

Happy 49th Birthday to the LP “John Wesley Harding”!!

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