As we mark the fiftieth anniversaries as so many events from a consequential year, let’s include the release of Bob Dylan’s eighth record, John Wesley Harding. Recorded in Nashville in the fall of 1967, it became available to listeners the following January. Along with so many other events, it adds to the perception of 1968 as a turning point year.
To say that the record was eagerly awaited may be something of an understatement. After breaking from the folk movement and “going electric” in 1965, Dylan had released three ground-breaking records in quick succession. They injected a modernist spirit into popular music, and as an answer to the British Invasion, reclaimed turf lost for the Americans. Dylan’s streak was stopped short, however, by a motorcycle accident, and no new material had been available for a year and half. During that period, The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and pop had entered its psychedelic phase. How would Dylan respond?
This is the way Dylan scholars typically situate John Wesley Harding, and it makes sense. I was alive and paying attention during the emergence of hip-hop in the 1980s, listening in astonishment to a local radio show that tracked releases week by week. One artist’s single upped the ante on another artist’s previous single, musically, lyrically, and in terms of what this new sound would entail. A genre was being created before our ears–it was a very exciting time. So it’s not hard for me to imagine the excitement surrounding the releases of artists such as Dylan and the Beatles in the sixties and to feel them in real time as commentaries on each other.
Dylan’s answer to Sgt. Pepper couldn’t have been more contrary. To the Beatles’ embrace of classical motifs and instruments, non-blues tonalities, complex structures, and pastiche, Dylan responded with a subdued collection of songs, Spartan in their instrumentation and arrangements. These were “terse parables,” a disavowal of psychedelia’s “rococo tendencies” and “the season of hype,” as critics have put it. “I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all,” Dylan said of the Summer of Love and its trappings, “I … didn’t want to be in that group portrait.” The quote brings to mind Sgt. Pepper‘s elaborate cover art, with its pantheon of historical figures, Dylan included among them.
But the summer of 1967 wasn’t only the Summer of Love. It was the summer of urban racial unrest, the Summer of Vietnam, and Dylan’s record wasn’t a reaction to Sgt. Pepper alone but also to the political radicalism of the period. Two questions were on the table, one might say–the first concerning psychedelia as an aesthetic choice and the second concerning militant activism as a political one. With John Wesley Harding, Dylan seemed to turn away from both choices.
This was something of a repeat for Dylan. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he’d “betrayed” the folk movement from which he’d emerged by playing with an electric blues band. He was “Judas,” as at least one audience member called out during the tours that followed, because he’d turned away from serious social matters and sold out to commercialism, to pop. The move was defensible as a statement of artistic freedom. Dylan didn’t want his message pre-ordained; he didn’t want his topics restricted to “protest”; he wanted to express himself freely. It was during this period that Dylan rose to fame as a kind of bad boy-genius-provocateur, unafraid of being an asshole, in his songs or in his life. The classic cinema verité documentary, Don’t Look Back, captures the beginnings of this manic period.
Since then, however, protest and resistance had only intensified. The reception of the Tet offensive and the reception of John Wesley Harding were chronologically parallel events. Dylan wouldn’t simply stay on the sidelines of the Movement, the new record seemed to say. He would retreat even further from the fight. Yet if this can be understood as a second betrayal of perceived political obligations, it was different from the first. Rather than staking a claim for expansive individual expression, as he had the first time, Dylan seemed to be checking his own aesthetic and all the entitled rock star behaviors that had gone along with it.
Sonically, lyrically, Dylan sounds penitent, chastened. Gone were the rock and roll drums and stinging, electric guitars. Gone were the long, word-packed lines. Dylan had been writing with great metaphorical flexibility. If the lines themselves were sometimes obscure, the songs themselves weren’t. They were about immediate emotional states–love, longing, sorrow, frustration, anger, ridicule, spite. Most of the time, you knew what he was talking about; he was just doing it in an elaborate way. On John Wesley Harding, it wasn’t the lyrics that were obscure; it was the stories they told that were remote and mysterious.
“All Along the Watchtower,” the album’s best known song (ironically, via a psychedelic cover version by Jimi Hendrix), can serve as an example. On one level, like most of the other songs on the record, it’s a story song without a chorus in the ballad tradition. But it’s as if the bulk of verses had been removed and the remaining ones reordered. It stops where it starts; it seems half lost in time. Were these songs from the American Old West or from the Ancient Near East? Their stories seemed just as at home in antiquity as they were in modern times.
John Wesley Harding‘s songs are not confessional in the way many of Dylan’s other songs were or would be, not confessional in the way the singer-songwriter era, soon to come, would be. These songs are confessional in a religious sense. Their protagonists have been tempted; they’ve transgressed. All of them men, they’ve damaged relations–with other men, perhaps with God, but mostly with women. Now they need to repair and atone. Sometimes the need is acted on, sometimes it’s ignored; other times it’s merely presented, and the ending is unresolved.
The cosmos is governed by powers far greater than our own, these songs suggest. Difficulties are eternal and consolation temporary, found only in humble pleasures. This is all framed in a kind of rural, retrograde religiosity. Against these chastened, mythological songs, Vietnam, civil rights, and all the rest shrink in significance. Todd Gitlin writes about what I’m trying to say here at the end of his book The Sixties. “Musical imagination … was trying to conjure a separate peace. The personal and muted was more appealing than the political and outré. No more floating free in far out space.” With John Wesley Harding as a model, the sympathetic followed suit: The Byrds with Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Band’s first two records, the second of which included their hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
I bring this up because of a lively discussion held some time back on the S-USIH Facebook page as to whether “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a Lost Cause song. It is, but to say that it is doesn’t say enough. It speaks to what’s troubling about the move toward the cosmic interior. The line between sympathizing with the opposition and supporting it begins to blur.