John Wesley Harding review by Bob Dylan

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  • Released: Nov 22, 1968
  • Sound: 8
  • Lyrics: 10
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 9 Superb
  • Users' score: 10 (1 vote)
Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding

Sound — 8
In 1965 Bob Dylan "electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other" at Newport with Mike Bloomfield's roaring guitar and Dylan asking his audience "how does it feel..." from the opening track of the holy trinity of Bob's discography "Highway 61 Revisited" "Like a Rolling Stone," sandwiched in-between "Bring It All Back Home" and the colossal "Blonde on Blonde." The tour that was met with a chorus of boo's being backed up with "pop band" as famous quoted by one fan on the "Don't Look Back" documentary, that pop being of course "The Band." The its stops, Dylan is gone, folk voice of a generation, the spokesman for the counter movements disappears, the crash. The story of Bob going off his motorcycle (we all like motorcycles in some way) on a road near his Woodstock home. Reports come out saying Bob is dead, he has a broken neck, he is scared so much is beyond recognisable, and no-one knows where is. Where was he? He was recovering from years for drug abuse, constant touring/writing/ and playing the role of "Bob Dylan." Now what really happened leading up to the crash, after the crash and if there was a crash is open to opinion, but one thing we know Bob Dylan in those late months of 1966 and early 1967 was reflect. He watch "Eat the Document" and was stunned by himself, he read his book "Tarantula" and was embarrassed. He became a father, He also read, a lot. He read the Bible, extensively, and of course he wrote.

The last time we heard Bob's voice in the studio before "JWH" was the last side of "Blonde on Blonde," the almost 11 and half minute tribute to his wife Sara Lowland "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." After that we hear the country, mellow, almost the polar opposite sound telling us "John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor and how he travelled with a gun in every hand." If anyone was in doubt that Bob was the same after the crash they have been proven wrong and the song has barely started yet. The 3rd time in 6 years Bob changed who Bob was, and like the pervious time this on purpose and conscience. "Blonde on Blonde" had keyboards, organs, trumpets and trombones, and 16 different musicians over various sessions, JWH has Dylan, Charlie McCoy, Ken Buttrey and Peter Drake playing on 2 songs, but make no mistake this isnt an empty sound. This is Bob Dylan's new singing voice, he's telling us something, almost personal on a 1 on 1 basis but he's not saying much, it's Bob's way.

Bob is known for recording his songs live and this album is no different, 3 or 4 guys gathered round a microphone playing the music, a few takes if it doesn't work ok forget it move onto the next song, if it does work then bag it and move on to the next song.

Bob Singing voice 9/10
Instruments 7/10
Overall impressions of the sound and music 8/10

Lyrics — 10
Scoring lyrics on an album featuring songs like "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Wicked Messenger" isnt going to be a hard sell. As I said above there is no doubt on the Bible's influence on Dylan's writing for this album his own mother is quoted as saying "in his house in Woodstock today, there's a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He's continuously getting up and going over to refer to something." Much has been wrote about those 3 verses 2 minutes and 31 second of "All Along the Watchtower", who are the joker and thief? There are plenty of theories Jesus on the cross? Are they Dylan before the crash then after the crash?

In the song "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (for those who don't know a well-known band took their name from this song, I'll let you figure out which band) tells the story of two friends however unusual for Dylan song is the last verse, strangely telling the listening the moral of the story. One of the few songs which Bob almost offers an explanation and doesn't leave the listen to come to his own conclusion.

"The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin'
Help him with his load
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road"

If all along the watchtower is the story of the the crucifixion "I dreamed I saw St Augustine" is almost the opposite, the guilt of the man who put him to death, as highlighted in the first verse. Although it should be noted that St Augustine wasn't martyred, things like this have never stopped Bob's creativity and they aint going to start now. The melody is taken straight from the folk song "Joe Hill" about an American labour leader who was gunned down. In the last verse of this the narrator telling the story of dream awakes in terror that it was him who put St Augustine to death, he is angry, terrified, then cried. The parallels of St Augustine being put to death by a crowd and Jesus being crucified are also plain to see, maybe Bob is back at desolation row and re-arranging their facing and giving them another name?

The autobiographical song "the drifters escape" of the drifter in the courtroom, "My trip hasn't been a pleasant one, and my time, it isn't long, and I still do not know, what it was that I've done wrong." The journey from 1962 to 1966, for some-one to go from no-one to the one in the space of 3 years isn't long and what did he do wrong? Write a few songs? In verse two "Why must you even try, outside, the crowd was stirring, You could hear it from the door, inside, the judge was stepping down, while the jury cried for more." Years earlier at Newport Bob was introduced to the crowd as "You know him, he's yours, Bob Dylan" Bob has always done things Bob's way, that quote from Newport is mentioned on the Martin Scorsese film "No Direction Home." When Dylan has his crash his judge and jury changed from being the public realising the true people who mattered in his life, family and now God, and no need to look further for this evidence than the last verse "Just then a bolt of lightning, struck the courthouse out of shape, and while everybody knelt to pray, the drifter did escape." The drifter has escaped, to Woodstock and now its all going to be his way and no-one else's.

Overall Impression — 9
When people talk about Dylan albums the usual albums get mentioned, "Freewheelin'," "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited Blonde on Blonde," and "Blood on the Tracks," and yes these are giants in his discography which capture something that can't be caught, "John Wesley Harding" is alongside these albums. Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, once said "signwriting is like fishing in a stream, you put in your line and hope to catch something; And I don't think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything." And this is no more evident on "John Wesley Harding." Bob says when he first started out he wrote the songs for himself as the songs he wanted to sing where not written so he had to write them himself, and this is the cornerstone of "JWH," these are songs that had to be put out there at that time under those circumstances.

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