October 31, 2020

Peter Stone Brown Archives

Archives of musician and writer Peter Stone Brown

Is John Wesley Harding Dylan’s greatest album?


I always thought the album after John Wesley Harding would be something like what eventually turned out to be Slow Train Coming. However, Bob Dylan went in an entirely different direction with Nashville Skyline and there was a certain craftsmanship that went into the songs that became Nashville Skyline.  A certain songwriting craftsmanship.  The songs on that album aren’t even really country songs for the most part, not by Nashville standards at the time.  There’s no double meanings, there’s no varying levels of thought, though you can read them in if you want to.

For Dylan, John Wesley Harding might have been just a simple exercise creatively speaking to see if he could write a plain song.  Obviously, he didn’t stay with it very long, though a lot of, but not all of the songs on New Morning could be taken in the same light, though by that album some of the natural mystery inherent in his writing had crept back in. I’ve always looked on “New Morning” as his piano album but that may be just how the sessions ended up working out and had those songs had been done with The Byrds as originally planned, it might have been completely different.

As for John Wesley Harding it is definitely not a rock album. It’s an album coming from another place entirely, an album that paints a landscape, a very American landscape. Throughout the album the various characters are seeking some kind of salvation, and at the conclusion of the album, the suggestion is that maybe the salvation is in love.

The celebration is at the end of the album.  The plain and simple triumph of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  After the soul searching, I really do not find much angst on the album, he realizes that maybe all there is, all that’s important is to see your true love coming your way. The album is relentless and it’s supposed to be that way.  Life itself is relentless.  That’s one of the reasons it’s a great album.

The Basement Tapes songs were the bridge Dylan had to cross over to get to John Wesley Harding and I feel the same way about Planet Waves, the bridge to Blood On The Tracks. The Basement Tapes songs were often improvised or partially improvised, while John Wesley Harding is a finished work and very on-purpose. It is about economy of writing, and using a similar tone in the songs to create a different kind of whole. Another bridge is the the coat he wears on John Wesley Harding. It’s the same one as Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. Look at the longer version of the Nashville Skyline photo in photographer Elliot Landy’s book, “Woodstock Visions.” The coat is not black, on Blond on Blonde the collar is up, while on Nashville Skyline the collar is down, but in typical Dylan style rather rumpled making it difficult to compare, and in this version of the picture (3), the material does appear to be suede.  

Finding the Beatles on the cover can be seen much better with an LP and a magnifying glass really helps though it is not necessary.  There are also pictures further up in the leaves of the tree as well. The person wearing the scarf, is either Purna or Luxman Das of the group the Bauls of Bengal (aka the Bengali Bauls).  

Bob Dylan with The Bauls

The Bauls were a street group from Calcutta. The word Baul means (to quote Al Aronowitz from the liner notes to the album Bengali Bauls at Big Pink): “madcap, handed down through the ages like a fool’s scepter, defying injunctions, canons customs and rules….Bauls deliberately wear the garments of both the Hindus and the Moslems, no small provocation in a country where insanity is called ‘the wind disease.’ Only a few years ago, India looked at the Bauls like punchlines walking around in search of a joke.  Now their music is considered a national treasure.”

“…The Bauls cut across the lines that divide Hundu from Moslem and
invite all the lowly to join them.  Are the Bauls a religion?  The
street is their place of worship.  God is in their Man of the Heart….”

A lot more information on them can be found in the liner notes to Bengali Bauls at Big Pink once available on Buddah Records and recorded in a certain basement by one Garth Hudson in December of 1967.

One of the keys to John Wesley Harding is how concise everything is. The song construction with the exception of “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is close to universal throughout. No choruses and three verses.  Only “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” has a bridge. Only the final two songs sort of pointed towards “Nashville Skyline.”  The rest of the album (like the songs on the Basement Tapes) could have led anywhere.

But the song John Wesley Harding is perhaps the most concise of all. It actually does tell a story, as much a story as the writer wants to reveal anyway, and it sets the tone for the record, leaving you with a sense of mystery and a bunch of questions. I believe it is that way totally on purpose. For one thing he knew the outlaw’s name was Hardin, not Harding. Therefore the song is not about the outlaw.  It’s about a fictional character, the mythical everyman outlaw captured in songs such as Jesse James or Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

For those of us who were around back then, John Wesley Harding was released in totally different circumstances.  Nothing had been heard from Dylan for over a year-and-a-half.  So for one thing there was the initial joy at just having him back, but no one had any idea what to expect.  These days those 18 months of waiting might seem like a small thing, but at the time it was somewhat torturous.

Dylan said in regards to those sessions in a Rolling Stone interview, that he was trying to get the same sound Gordon Lightfoot got with the same musicians but it came out different.  I do believe part of that. It would have been a different album that’s for sure.  It might have been lesser, might not have been, it’s hard to say.  The playing by Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey is brilliant and it’s some of the best guitar and harp work Dylan has ever done and some of his best singing as well. In an interview some time after the album came out, Robbie Robertson said “Bob came back with the tapes and said ‘Can you do the guitar and Garth the organ,’ but I thought it was too small-time.”

According to Happy Traum in the Sing Out! interview with Bob Dylan of 1968, Pete Seeger liked to ice skate to the John Wesley Harding album and Bob’s reaction was, “I’m glad he feels that way about it.”

There are many many songs that have the same melody that Dylan used for “I Pity The Poor Immigrant.”  Dylan himself used the melody before for “The Ballad of Donald White.”  Although this time I believe he said he got the tune from “The Ballad of Peter Amberly” by Canadian folksinger Bonnie Dobson, who wrote the classic “Morning Dew.” The liner notes of the Dobson album say the song is based on the Scottish ballad, “Tramps & Hawkers.”  This melody was also used for another traditional song Dylan performed live in the early ’90s, “Banks of Ponchartrain.”  

The Ballad of Peter Amberley by Bonnie Dobson
The Dubliners – Tramps and Hawkers
Paul Brady and Andy Irvine – The Lakes of Pontchartrain.
Bob Dylan – The Lakes of Pontchartrain, Jones Beach Theatre, June 30 1988.

As for “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and borrowing from Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” when the John Wesley Harding album came out at the end of 1967, I believe everyone who had heard “Joe Hill” noticed that immediately, though that is the only similarity. The only thing Dylan borrowed from the song “Joe Hill” was the first line replacing “Joe Hill” with St. Augustine.  After the first line, the melody and lyrics differ quite a bit and I have no doubt that Dylan knew exactly what he was doing.  The first time I heard the song I immediately thought “Joe Hill.”  It was a famous song even before Joan Baez did it, and if memory serves me well her record of it didn’t appear till after John Wesley Harding was released. The person who really made the song famous was Paul Robeson. A pretty brilliant interpretation of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ in Guerrilla Minstrels by Wayne Hampton is that the song was inspired by the death of Woody Guthrie. Guthrie died the fall the album was recorded, October 3rd 1967, so it’s just a matter of when Dylan wrote the song. He recorded it on October 17th, 1967. It makes a lot of sense especially if you take into account the second verse.  Guthrie’s was most certainly “a voice without restraint.”

I had John Wesley Harding for 12 years before I figured out what “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” was about. None of the interpretations that I read in any of the reviews of the album made any sense. Robert Shelton said it was about Vietnam, others thought it was about immigrants coming to America. After Slow Train Coming came out (an album I’d been expecting ever since, though I thought it would be more like Passolini’s Gospel Acccording To Saint Matthew), I decided I better find out about this shit and so I started reading the Bible cover to cover starting of course with the Old Testament. Lo and behold in the Old Testament in Leviticus during exodus there’s this section called the Blessings of Obedience, where Moses goes up on the mountain and talks to God. The Jews are in the desert fleeing Egypt but they’re messing up. Right there in that very scene God tells Moses that if they don’t start acting right and believing in him and paying attention to him, “I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass” (26.19), “your strength shall be spent in vain” (26.20), “and ye shall eat and not be satisfied” (26.26). Now I understand the song.  The “I” isn’t Dylan, the “I” is God, and the immigrant is the Jews in the desert during Exodus. What kind of person writes a song from that perspective where the “I” is God?”. In the interview Dylan gave to Happy Traum in Sing Out magazine in 1968, he says ‘I’m not in the songs’, the ‘I is another’. And he has maintained that about that album throughout in all of the interviews. More than 20 years later when he did the Song Talk interview with Paul Zollo he said the same thing, so he’s remained consistent.

I’d be willing to bet the “I” in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is him, as well as the “I” who saw my true love coming way way in “Down Along The Cove.” Although the bundle of joy could be Moses. I doubt the “I” in “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” is him either.  On the other hand, the “I” in “As I Went Out One Morning” is somewhat debatable. Then again, the “I” in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is totally a matter of speculation. The funny thing is for an album where he is not in the songs, he sure uses “I” a lot.  

Over the decades a lot of consideration has been given to just who Frankie Lee is or whether Judas Priest is also the Landlord. Some might say that Judas Priest and Frankie Lee are really two sides of the same person, but the most important question is where does the Little Neighbor Boy fit in, and not only that, does he have any Judas Priest albums?  Frankie Lee could be the same Frank as in Frank & Vera.  Maybe Terry Shute is really the little neighbor boy.  There really is a Frankie Lee who is a pretty good though very unknown soul singer from New York who sometimes performs with a Turbaned blues singer named Sonny Rhodes. But I don’t think that Frankie Lee met that Judas Priest except for maybe when he tried to collect the royalties for his album.

Given all that it is probably save to say that Bob is neither the Escaped Drifter or the Wicked Messenger, though the Judge could be the Hanging Judge in “Lily Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts,” but he could also be the Cream Judge as in Cream Judge & The Clown.  However, possibly the most important question concerning this album (other than are those little pictures really there in the tree) is whether the author really did add the “g” to Harding to make up for all those early apostrophes.

John Wesley Harding is one of my top favorite Dylan albums and it may even make more sense now. It may well be his greatest album.