John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding – Wikipedia

Recorded: October-November 1967

Released: December 27, 1967 (although actual release date is uncertain)

The Pitchfork article on “The Cutting Edge” Bootleg Series has a quote about John Wesley Harding that so perfectly captures my reaction to this album that I’m just going to lead with it: Dylan was “stripping everything to the bone and writing with shocking economy and clarity”. The skipping reels of rhyme from 1964-1966 are gone. The high-spirited nonsense of the basement recordings has been reined in. Arrangements are sparse and clean.

But are these songs really clear

There’s “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, which sounds like a story about two friends, but really, what’s going on here? “Nothing was revealed” indeed. (I do really enjoy this song.) 

“All Along The Watchtower”. “Shocking economy” is right. Elegant, mysterious simplicity. “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”. Perfect as it is. Jimi Hendrix version is great, but that’s a completely different song.

“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs ever. It seems so straightforward, and the singing is so emotional. The last verse always hits me hard: 

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine

Alive with fiery breath

And I dreamed I was amongst the ones

That put him out to death

Oh, I awoke in anger

So alone and terrified

I put my fingers against the glass

And bowed my head and cried

I can’t even say why — maybe just the sense that there’s always deep regret for things you’ve done and wished you hadn’t. Or maybe the literal meaning — I’ve had a few dreams in my life where I did something terrible, and struggle to wake up, feeling awful until I fully realize it was just a dream.

“I PIty The Poor Immigrant”. This song always surprises me. I always expect it to be something like “Deportees”, a song lamenting the way immigrants to the US (and everywhere, really) are treated. But no. The lyrics are pretty shocking:

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would’ve stayed home

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev’ry breath

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

What the actual hell is going on here? Maybe the bogus ‘moral’ from “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” actually applies here: “the moral of the story, the moral of the song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong”.  Don’t lose one’s traditions… you can’t solve your problems by taking off for a land of opportunity, where it’s all about material things… maybe that’s it.

“Drifter’s Escape” and “Wicked Messenger”. I like ‘em both (really enjoyed 90s live versions). Are the drifter and wicked messenger prophets? Are they Dylan?

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