In the fall of 1967, Bob Dylan was at a crossroads. Recovering from a motorcycle accident while leaving his manager Albert Grossman’s home near Woodstock, NY, he was sidelined for much of that year with a cracked vertebra and a bad case of road rash. And his absence indeed sparked a litany of speculation as to his whereabouts, the severity of his injuries and whether or not the bike crash even happened at all.
Actually, Dylan himself threw a little shade at the situation in his 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One.
“I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered,” he wrote. “Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses.”
But during that period where he was on the mend (or not), recuperating not too far from the pink ranch house where he and The Band recorded the material that would comprise The Basement Tapes, Dylan was indeed cognizant of the music emerging from the year of the Summer of Love and wasn’t exactly thrilled about the direction rock ‘n’ roll was going since reinventing it with his “Thin Wild Mercury” sound of ‘65. Matter of fact, witnessing the game of psychedelic one-upsmanship between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties’ Request prompted Bob to take a drastic directional change as he began to think about getting back into the studio. Rather than competing with his contemporaries by expanding upon the sound he revolutionized on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (not to mention a historic tour of 1966), Dylan booked time with producer Bob Johnston in Nashville and cut a record of acoustic country-folk songs, the sole electric currents running through them being Charlie McCoy’s bass guitar and the pedal steel magic of Pete Drake on two of the album’s best cuts, “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. These are songs that stood in stark contrast of the sneering, sardonic wit of “Positively 4th St.” and “ Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, basking in the rural warmth of his time in northern Ulster County though unencumbered by a specific time or place.
“It was a Puritan drama of morals,” declared Greil Marcus in the liner notes to the 2010 box set The Original Mono Recordings. “It is Puritan in the feeling the music gives off that all the stories it carries are taking place in some small, simple village, where you can still find people who’d known Hester Prynne and Tom Dooley; and in the way, out of all the tales of dark strangers and wicked messengers, jokers and thieves, saints and founding fathers, landlords and immigrants, in the end honesty trumps every value.”
For Dylan, it was very simply the music he felt in his heart after a trying period of reclusion and recovery–a sentiment author Anthony Scaduto, in his 1971 book Dylan: An Intimate Biography, called “an avowal of faith.”
“You see, the album was all I could come up with musically,” Dylan told the author. “It’s the best I could have done at that time. I didn’t intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound. I would have liked a good sound, more musical, more steel guitar, more piano. More music. At the time so many people were into electronics, and I didn’t know anything about that.”
John Wesley Harding nonetheless inspired many of the very rockers who informed Dylan to pull the plug on the mercury. The most famous, of course, being Jimi Hendrix, who transformed the album’s signature tune, “All Along The Watchtower”, into a fiery anthem from which nearly three generations of guitarists cut their teeth.
“I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” Dylan wrote in the liner notes to his 1985 box set Biograph. “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
Yet even as this great transitional masterpiece in the Bob canon turns a half-century, these mysterious and mystifying songs continue to inspire songwriters to push the bar of their art form as we look ahead to 2018. And in honor of its landmark anniversary, we spoke to a few of the acts with whom the magic of John Wesley Harding still very much resonates.
Kyle Craft: The sonic simplicity across John Wesley Harding paints such a vivid picture… It sounds like a sunny autumn to me, leaves whirling across some backroad to nowhere. Charlie McCoy’s bass grooves are like the engine to the car, Dylan’s words are the gasoline. Funny though, I always thought it made perfect sense that it was right before Nashville Skyline and absolutely NO sense that it came after Blonde on Blonde.
Chad VanGaalen: Dylan comes out of his electric period with the perfect folk record to shut everyone the fuck up. May we all punctuate our sentences with harmonica. Also, “Drifter’s Escape” has that sweet CAN beat.
A.J. Croce: “I’m not sure whose idea it was to use a small band and record in Nashville with Bob Johnston producing, but it makes the record for me. There is so much space for Bob Dylan to shine. His singing and playing were never better, very relaxed, it feels like he has something to say and nothing to prove, which lets the band leave room for him to be himself. He must have felt the same way as he followed it with Nashville Skyline. Bassist Charlie McCoy is the other star of this album for me. He adds a very soulful element without ever getting in the way.
It’s not completely surprising to me that after starting his career as an acoustic solo act, and following that with several electric band recordings that Bob Dylan would want to find the balance between the two sounds–though I’m just guessing since I don’t know Bob Dylan. I do think that in 1967, when everyone was throwing in a sitar, a reincarnated John Philip Sousa marching band, and the London Philharmonic onto their recordings, someone would rebel by simplifying–and who better than Bob Dylan?
Wesley Stace (FKA John Wesley Harding): The first Dylan album I bought was Budokan and I was only aware of John Wesley Harding first as a songbook in a music shop: a chords and lyrics type book. It left a mark, purely because of the coincidence of names. Back then, Wesley was a pretty rare name. I never met another growing up – there are a few more now. So I did feel a little kinship with it from the beginning.
Both John Wesley Hardin (as the tiniest bit of research tells you his name was really spelled; I even read Hardin’s “memoir” a little later) and I were named after John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. My theory on that mis-spelling was that Dylan left so many g’s off “Changin’” and “Blowin’” that he decided to add one to Hardin to even things up.
My favourite song is “Dear Landlord.” Here’s a version I did of that live on the radio many years ago on KCRW, just for your entertainment.
I also made that record Dynablob, an anagram of Bob Dylan naturally, which was my first self-released CD a few years ago. I went to the trouble of enlarging those supposed Beatles faces in the tree on the CD itself: they’re not there really, but I blew them up as large as I could. Probably not the *only* parody cover of John Wesley Harding, but the designers of the original chose such a great and weird font for that cover, and we only had to reorganize the letters. And look at the font: the A is fantastic!
Robyn Hitchcock: John Wesley Harding was a stark, wintery record that put an end to the most flamboyant, colourful, fanciful year ever seen in Pop Culture. Bob Dylan cut his hair, his words and his music down to an enigmatic essential that I’m still pondering. Its message seemed to be: “You think I’m cryptic? okay…decode this!”
In classic Dylan style he reappeared from 18-month’s silence – during which the hippie movement of which he was an unwilling avatar blossomed and Consciousness ran riot – in the opposite guise to what we expected. He seemed so subdued and adult. Much further away, more circumspect and clear-eyed.
On hearing John Wesley Harding the Beatles and the Stones started going back to their own musical roots, and the Revolution reached its zenith. The pendulum swung slowly backwards like an executioner’s blade and now we have President Trump. Still, you can’t blame Bob Dylan for that.
Do I like John Wesley Harding as a record? I still don’t know, but I have four vinyl copies and I’ve played the hell out of all of them…
Peter Case: I liked the outlaw John Wesley Harding: He was always known to help, and never made a foolish move. As a kid, it didn’t occur to me that he was supposed to be Bob Dylan. Tom Paine and the damsel were a complete mystery, a view into an adult world I was drawn to but couldn’t comprehend. The soulfulness of the vocal and the sadness of St Augustine hit me: Put him out to death? I remained silent in the face of mystery. Frankie Lee and Judas Priest? I still don’t really understand this record. Maybe that was partly the point. It was beautiful and added up on a subliminal level. There was a sense of God, right and wrong, reaping what you sow, fate and destiny that ran through all the songs: That’s not something you can find everywhere.
I became a fan in 1965 and had the albums in my collection but the first one I bought right when it came out was John Wesley Harding. It was a December release, I was 13, and I’d walked home from Woolworth’s in Buffalo where’d I’d purchased it, braced against icy wind, temperatures in the teens, and falling snow. The music reflected a wintry frame of mind. My favorite track right off was “All Along The Watchtower;” I played it everyday before I went to school. Apocalyptic atmospheres were familiar in Dylan and I got it: Everybody my age had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassinations. My other favorite was “The Wicked Messenger.” Those two tracks won me with their grooves, but I accepted and loved the whole record. I’m not sure what it said to me 50 years ago, but it’s still talking to me and I dig it.
Luther Russell (Those Pretty Wrongs): Blonde on Blonde may be Dylan’s eternal masterpiece, but for John Wesley Harding I feel we’re hearing the same lyrical approach applied to his ongoing understanding of the Bible. He’s taking those parables and lessons, turning them on their heads and asking more questions, which is what he always does. Dylan always seems to be saying, “Do you trust what you see? Do you believe what you’ve heard? Will you ever really know the truth?” I think John Wesley Harding is his “cubist” Bible, if you will. With tons of phlegm, of course.
Amy Rigby: How does anyone explain their Dylan fandom? It’s personal, it’s random. It’s a muddy original cassette of Street Legal that sounds better than any remastered version because that’s how you first heard it. It’s Modern Times on the Astrovan CD player telling you it’s okay to leave Nashville behind. And on and on, in retrospect and going forward. His body of work is so huge and deep and shallow and wide, you piece your knowledge together not in a linear fashion but like a hungry urchin at the greatest all-you-can-eat buffet in the world. Drawn to the cheese platter Knocked Out Loaded by a single towering song (“Brownsville Girl”), plain but essential works like John Wesley Harding sit sidelined until a big anniversary arrives and you listen to the whole thing and relisten and have to shift your view of the world to make space.
Wreckless Eric: When it came out I remember being somewhat mystified – albums of that time were colourful and expansive with gatefold sleeves and pschedelic artwork – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland, A Saucerful Of Secrets, The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion by The Incredible String Band, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Their Satanic Majesties Requests…
By comparison John Wesley Harding looked and sounded positively austere. Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica supported by a bass player and drummer who at times sounded as though they were playing the song for the first time – and they probably were. Albums of 67/68 just didn’t sound that rough.
Listening to it now I’m thinking that after Blonde On Blonde Bob Dylan must have been finding it pretty hard work being Bob Dylan and it’s as though he retreated into history – a kind of fantasy history.
From a sonic point of view it sounds a bit like The Times They Are A Changin’ or even The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan augmented with bass and drums. Perhaps he was looking back to how he started out – there are no chiming electric guitars, no “Visions Of Johanna” or “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, none of the urban or apocalyptic landscape of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Highway 61 Revisited”.
It wasn’t an album that was immediately easy to like. Even the cover looked drab with its inexplicable photo of some people and a tree – though it became slightly more interesting with the rumours of concealed pictures of the Beatles.
It got to number one in the UK album chart but I never knew anyone who could get into it at the time. I remember a strange feeling of relief when Nashville Skyline came along – he’d somehow cemented his direction, and even though I might have been a bit confused he seemed to know where he was at.
John Wesley Harding always seemed to me like a step along the way, until recently when I’ve come to appreciate its dryness and subtle air of mystery.
Dana Buoy (Akron/Family): I was first introduced to John Wesley Harding by Michael Gira. We were planning on recording a cover of the tune “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” so I needed to get familiar with this song. I was into Dylan at the time but I only really knew Freewheelin, Highway 61 and Blood on the Tracks. So I was excited to hear some more. The only song from JWH I had heard before this was “All Along The Watchtower”. And this was only after learning that Jimi Hendrix didn’t write this!
As I began to dig into this album I noticed Dylan doing a more sort of country sound that I was unfamiliar with and I felt as if I were where one does not belong. I grew up on hip hop, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones so I admit I was a bit dismissive of this album when I first started listening. But leave it to a few months in a van with only a handful of CD’s to give something new a try. We would put this record on more and more and as the tour went on, I really started to love this album. I noticed the lyrics were very direct and were intent on telling a story more than they were to giving a rhyme. I liked that the sparse instrumentation gave room for the lyrics to paint the pictures. I loved that every time I returned to this album I found something new. This was the most attention I had ever paid to lyrics. I was always most responsive to sonic elements which might be why I was dismissive at first, but this record has stood the test of time for me.
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski (Trupa Trupa): Making things simple is, in my opinion, the most difficult and simplicity shines on that album. It was recorded during several short recording sessions and one can hear it delivers what is the most valuable, organic and overwhelmingly simple in music. The combination of country-folk with Biblical themes heard in lyrics, probably under the poetic supervision of Allen Ginsberg himself, is just magnificent. I don’t think it was overthought or calculated by any means. It just came out of Dylan as usual, almost like fulfilling his organic duty. It teaches you the fundamental verse-chorus-verse patterns in songwriting and is a great example of the famous ‘less is more’ approach that in real life is so difficult to achieve. This way of thinking reminds me even of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) songs that are far less complicated than his symphonies and compositions of any other classical giants. Meanwhile, by using what seems like simple means of expression – short song structure and into-the-point poetic lyrics, Schubert’s gets very close to perfection. What stands out for me in John Wesley Harding is the small amount of words Dylan used in particular songs’ lyrics. I’m all for the ‘less is more’ but it’s so easy to fall into the trap of redundancy. Obviously “All Along The Watchtower” is ‘the song from the album, again for the perfect match of Bible-like poetic phrasing with the simplicity of composition.
Jeff Klein: John Wesley Harding marked a shift in Dylan’s writing (again). With this album he seemed to be writing more focused at the sentence level. Every line having more meaning and being less ornamental (rhyming for no reason). Though I love the entire album, what initially drew me in was “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. On an album filled with temptation and martyrdom we end with an unapologetic, unpretentious love song, one reassuring us that love is nothing new. All our fears are futile. “Kick your shoes off, do not fear. Bring that bottle over here. I’ll be your baby tonight“. My thoughts exactly.
Louise Goffin: My father was such a fan of this record, he gave my little sister the middle name “Wesley” when she was born.
John Doe (X/The Knitters): The first time I heard John Wesley Harding, it hit me like a brick, because it was so simple. When I first started learning to play bass, Rick Danko and Willie Dixon were my biggest influence to learn. But since John Wesley Harding was so simple, and the bass is such a huge melodic element to it, I played along with that as well and learned a number of things about song structure by listening to Charlie McCoy. He was known more as a harmonica player, but he played bass on John Wesley Harding. But he was more than just the bass player on that album. Every song required a bass part, like a string quartet.
Flash forward fortysomething years later and Todd Haynes is doing the I’m Not There movie with Joe Henry producing the soundtrack. And Todd asks Joe if they could get John Doe to sing “Pressing On” from Saved. Joe said it was a great idea and he called me up and I told them I’d be there the next day. I had been playing “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” for years and years in concert, and we tacked that onto the session. I love that song. There’s so much mystery to it. Over the years I’ve read a bunch of things about it, and it’s still not clear why he chose it as a title because the lyrics aren’t exactly what St. Augustine would have done as a saint. I’m actually patterning my next solo record after John Wesley Harding in that it’s going to be simple like that in a pre-industrial way. I haven’t even written any of the songs yet; it’s just an idea. I want to write a record where all the songs could take place without a telephone or even trains. And I think John Wesley Harding was like that. All of the songs could’ve taken place in 1890.
Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon): Around my 13th birthday in October, 1968, I was listening to an FM station out of Chicago, that I could pick up only at night on my transistor radio in rural Georgia. I heard an otherworldly outerspacey wah-wah sound coming through my earbud. The singer began to sing in style that I hadn’t really heard before. It sounded like he was speaking, taking a cool, long step back from it all. The space between each phrase and word only emphasized his delivery. “That was Jimi Hendrix with ‘All Along the Watchtower’ written by Bob Dylan,” the DJ said. My little mind was blown. I associated Dylan with folk music or something–you know, “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
It became one of my favorite songs and still is. I think that it is the greatest cover of all time. Around four years later I was in college at UGA. It was 1973. I totally missed all the hippies and stuff like that. I began listening to all types of music and catching up on rock history through my older or more knowledgeable friends. Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding was something that I really took notice of when I finally heard it, because it had “All Along The Watchtower” on it. Sonically, it was downright sparse sounding, but there was some kind of magic happening with Dylan’s well thought out and pared down use of words. I would have loved to have heard Hendrix do an entire Dylan album. I think that they were on the same wavelength. Dylan with words and Hendrix with sound.
\Winston Cook Wilson (Office Culture): If you learned from VH1 countdowns like I did, you just didn’t hear people talking about Dylan imitating his heroes, at least other than Woody Guthrie; he was a lightning bolt that split the decade in half. But in ’67 he was already striving at that point to make simpler streamlined songs that sounded like old country standards or revamped folk ballads. In another life, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” could have been a Lefty Frizell song or something, but still that wry humor that is exclusive to Dylan is there. “Kick your shoes off, do not fear/Bring that bottle over here” has that playfully vague sense of place and scene that so many of Dylan’s best tunes do. What a masterpiece!
Richard Barone: Coming when it did, John Wesley Harding must have sounded at first like a front porch field recording. By the time I discovered the album, I perceived it as a series of twelve rough sketches and ideas; appealing, unfinished drafts. I found it theatrical and poetic, a fictional slice of Americana with Dylan as kind of narrator. I guess what struck me was how coverable the songs instantly appeared. It was almost like he was posing a challenge: his own recordings of the tunes were so spare, unassuming, under-produced and under-sung, that he was daring other artists to take them and flesh them out. The timeless durability of the words and the folky simplicity of the chords made the songs universally open to interpretation. Dylan sustains his character, tone and timbre throughout, confidently echoing blues and folk heroes while commanding the country-flavored genre as if he invented it because, along with a handful of others, he did.