Blonde On Blonde found Bob Dylan taking rock ‘n’ roll to places where it had not previously gone. However, in July of 1966 Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and disappeared from public view. He would only perform live twice in the next three years and that would be at two memorial concerts for Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall. He would spend a great deal of time and effort cloistered with The Band in Woodstock, New York, recording dozens of songs. These recordings would be bootlegged for years until finally released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. Interestingly no songs recorded during these sessions would appear on Dylan’s next release.
John Wesley Harding was released December 27, 1967 without much fanfare. Dylan would issue no singles from this album, yet it would be his highest charting album to date reaching number 2 on the national charts.
John Wesley Harding was an about face from Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan returned to playing his acoustic guitar backed by only Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey on drums, plus some occasional steel guitar by Pete Drake. It would also be a very focused effort for Dylan. Dylan let his imagination run wild on Blonde On Blonde but there is a more unified feel here. The songs were melodic and tended not to stray from traditional structures. But this was still Dylan and his use of imagery would remain intact which looked toward a horizon that only he could see.
The big surprise of John Wesley Harding was its spiritual nature and especially the use of Old Testament imagery. As such, it is a lovely and calming album that at its end finds Dylan moving in a gentle country direction.
“All Along The Watchtower” is the song that immediately stands out forty years later. This is one of the rare Dylan songs whose definitive version is not associated with him. Jimi Hendrix would take this excellent acoustic version and turn his electric guitar loose and create one of the best rock songs of all time. Even Dylan would prefer this performance. Still, his stripped down version places the emphasis squarely on the lyrics and it emerges as a far different song than Hendrix’s version.
“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is based upon the life and death of St. Augustine, an early Christian bishop, who died in 430. “As I Went Out One Morning” finds its foundation in the life of outlaw Revolutionary War patriot Tom Paine who was a symbol of unyielding protest no matter what the personal cost. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is a sermon filled with Biblical imagery. I am not sure if Dylan is totally sincere here but he creates an interesting journey for the listener.
There is a three song trilogy, “Drifter’s Escape,” “Dear Landlord” and “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” that return Dylan to the area of social consciousness.
The final two songs, “Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” close the album on a positive note. They are poignant and sensitive love songs but more importantly they are rooted in country music and point toward Dylan’s future.
John Wesley Harding was a unique stop for Bob Dylan in his musical journey. It was a stark and beautiful release and remains as one of Dylan’s best.