Bob Dylan's remarkable first album after his debilitating 1966 motorcycle accident isn't as urgent as the ambitious folk and rock songs he wrote earlier in the decade. Even considering the rocking "All Along the Watchtower... more »" (covered famously by Jimi Hendrix), the album's overall feeling is soft and laid-back, all gently strummed guitars, perfectly timed harmonicas, and some of Dylan's best pure singing to date. The 1968 release sounds as if the songwriter and his three sidemen set up a few tape recorders in a bedroom and began playing as soon as they woke up in the morning. They open with the title track (a folk fable), move into the piano-driven "Dear Landlord," and close with the sweet love song "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." --Steve Knopper« less
Bob Dylan's remarkable first album after his debilitating 1966 motorcycle accident isn't as urgent as the ambitious folk and rock songs he wrote earlier in the decade. Even considering the rocking "All Along the Watchtower" (covered famously by Jimi Hendrix), the album's overall feeling is soft and laid-back, all gently strummed guitars, perfectly timed harmonicas, and some of Dylan's best pure singing to date. The 1968 release sounds as if the songwriter and his three sidemen set up a few tape recorders in a bedroom and began playing as soon as they woke up in the morning. They open with the title track (a folk fable), move into the piano-driven "Dear Landlord," and close with the sweet love song "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." --Steve Knopper
Barbara S. (gonepie) from TARRYTOWN, NY Reviewed on 11/30/2008...
One of Bob's truly underrated gems. A must in every collection.
Dylan Comes Back Quietly
Thomas Magnum | NJ, USA | 10/05/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After Bob Dylan had a severe motorcycle accident in Woodstock, 1966, he spent almost two years recouperating. During that time only his first Greatest Hits album was released. When he did finally release an album of new material in late 1968, it moved away from the electrified sounds of Bringing It Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde and returned to his quieter folk roots. On John Wesley Harding, there is no electric guitar, just Dylan's acoustic guitar and harmonica backed with bass, drums and piano. The accident probably made Dylan more reflective on life and death and those themes lyrically permeate this great work. Of course everyone is familiar with "All Along The Watchtower", but there are other songs that deserve high standing in the expansive Dylan catalog. "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest" has a classic Dylan narrative with cryptic lyrics and is one of his best. "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" finds him in fine vocal form and "I Pity The Poor Immigrant", "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" & "Dear Landlord" has him again singing about the trouble and travails of the little man. There is a country music feel running through the album and it laid the groundwork for his next release, the full blown country album Nashville Skyline."
A Simple Album
porkspam | San Diego | 10/30/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"JWH's draw is its simplicity: just three or four guys playing simple instruments simply while Dylan sings simple, powerful, moral tunes evoking Old Testament judgment and irony. Released in 1968 it was thought by some to be a response to the technological one-upmanship of the endless tape-loops of the just-then released Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and the Stones' Satanic Majesty's Request. In truth, Dylan's 1966 near-death experience - which resulted in an almost two-year absence from the recording scene - seems to have caused Bob to "bring it all back home" to both his rural and Jewish roots. (The evidence of Dylan's slowdown first appear in his [and the Band's] 1975 release, The Basement Tapes, which was actually recorded immediately after the motorcycle accident, bootlegged for years, and then released by Columbia.) The result of Dylan's introspection is stark background music with Dylan's voice leading the way through stories with lessons such as "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest's'" "If you see your neighbor carrying something, help him with his load/and don't go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road." While the album is not more or less concerned with morality than any othe Dylan work, it is profund in its concern for personal repentance; there is a noticeable absence of Dylan's "You got a lot of nerve" finger-pointing. Indeed, "The Drifter's Escape" is a warning to the self-righteousness of a narrow society, a reminder that personal repentance does not include Puritanical purges of own's neighbor's conscience. JWH, while musically simple, does not suffer the way Springsteen's Nebraska does from its spare arrangements. Unfortunately, Springsteen's successful imitation of the dusty monotony of life on the plains does not make for interesting music; JWH, on the other hand, is a great piece of work because simplicity is inherently valuable while boring is, well, boring. Evocative of the Biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, JWH is one of rock's great works, a moral retreat set to music, something to make one close the Wall Street Journal and consider the lilies of the field, the mate and children of one's heart and home."
Remaster no good? Stick with the original...
ewomack | MN USA | 02/01/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After hearing NOTHING good about the remastered version of this CD, I decided to stick with my original copy. But all remasters aside, this album from 1967 (less than a week from 1968) now stands as one of Dylan's greats. Some consider it his last GREAT work ("Nashville Skyline" followed it, and then "Self-Portrait" and "New Morning"). At the time his core fans must have thought something was a little off. The monumental "Blonde on Blonde" preceded it in 1966 with its raucous mood, catchy incredibly Dylan-drawled melodies, and burgeoning instrumentation that lashes out like solar prominence from speakers and headphones. Juxtaposed with the full frontal attack of "Blonde On Blonde", "John Wesley Harding" seems introverted, introspective, and exceedingly pared down. Of course Dylan was just being the never repetitive Dylan. And of course he was also in a horrific motorcycle accident following the release of "Blonde On Blonde". Nonetheless, according to Dylan's amazing "Chronicles Vol. 1" he was still seeking escape from his reputation as a "prophet" and "savior" in 1967. Many big names at the time, including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs, were publicly calling on Dylan to stop flirting with the mainstream and "lead them". Dylan didn't have the same calling. He withdrew. Maybe "John Wesley Harding" is a manifestation of this withdrawal and introversion?
The album is pared down. It is laid back. It is anything but raucous. It even feels lonely. Dylan's voice is very different than on "Blonde On Blonde". The lyrics focus on the down-and-out, the have-nots, and the deprived. They glisten with Dylan's usual lyrical brilliance. The instrumentation is minimal: acoustic guitars, bass, harmonica, piano here and there, understated drums, and Dylan crooning over the mix. Dylan produced nothing else like it before or after. It isn't quite country, but it presages "Nashville Skyline". It is, in the end, a transitional album, and one of Dylan's many. Like "Another Side of Bob Dylan" and "Bringing It All Back Home" it points to the future and has almost nothing to do with the past. The last song, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", supports this, and provides an open door to Dylan's full blown country phase (it could have fit very well onto "Nashville Skyline").
After "John Wesley Harding" Dylan never went back. He kept on developing and changing, leaving his works behind him like a massive treasure trail. He never reappropriated them for artistic or commercial gain. He even said that he never could play "All Along the Watchtower" the same again after hearing Jimi Hendrix's 1968 version. So the version here was very short lived. In retrospect, "John Wesley Harding" fills out Dylan's 1960's output appropriately. And it remains one of his best. Hopefully he'll write about it in "Chronicles, Vol. 2".
One last thing: the cover. It's probably one of Dylan's strangest and most cryptic. Dylan wears the same jacket from the cover of "Blonde On Blonde". And legend has it that on the original British pressing one can clearly see the faces of the Beatles upside-down in the tree under the letters "le" (the CD obscures this, unfortunately). Rolling Stone supposedly stated "Dylan Record Puts Beatles up a Tree". The photo was taken in Woodstock (supposedly Sally Grossman's backyard) with two men from Bengal (called "The Bauls of Bengal") and a local carpenter who happened to be there. Why Dylan used it for an album cover who knows? Something more for "Chronicles, Vol. 2", I guess."
There was a wicked messenger
E. Kutinsky | Seattle, WA | 09/25/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Why is the way Bob Dylan's structured his career so damn important to the history and existence of rock music? For the answer to that question, I give you 1967's John Wesley Harding, not because of its quality (which is impeccable, I'll get there), but because its sound was such an about face to the climactic fullness of Blonde on Blonde that it appeared career suicide, because the world was on a sex-drugs-and-rock kick that summer and Dylan denied all three by releasing a record of spiritual asceticism, and because to this day it remains amongst the most inscrutably mercurial and fascinating records ever made. I'll give you my take - Dylan was recovering from his motorcycle accident at the time, and broke with his long-term manager Albert Grossman. The record reflects a deep turning inward for Dylan by reflecting on the state of society, being disgusted by everything he saw, and turning that hatred inward upon realizing he's guilty of all that he accuses. Listen to "I Dream I Saw St. Augustine" - "No martyr is among you now/ whom you can call your own/ but go on your way accordingly," he sings. All of the characters he fastens himself in and out of during the record make the same assessment, and Dylan himself feels on trial - he's the drifter of "Drifter's Escape," the hobo of "I Am a Lonesome Hobo," and the Judas of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" doing time for everything except being true to who he is. The record, then, becomes stripped musically of everything in Dylan's quest to reemerge - he cocoons, if you will, and comes out singing "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," a bit of a love song to himself, predicting safe, pastoral times ahead (see New Morning). Plus, it features a little song called "All Along the Watchtower," a song that redefined the word "ominous," and one that brilliantly wagered the idea that we may not deserve what waits for us, good or bad, but at all costs, we have to approach it. That may be the defining statement of Dylan's career."
Robert P. Inverarity | Silicon Valley, California, United States | 11/07/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"John Wesley Harding is an audacious album, even by a man famous for his audacity and perversity. It pretends to be a folk album, but it's one of the most unique recordings I know. (Acoustic guitar, harmonica, (acoustic?) bass, and restrained drums rarely combine so magically.) It pretends to contain topical songs, but the lyrical meanings are more elusive than allusive. Others have described the dreamlike quality of the recordings, so I'll focus on the lyrics.
Franz Kafka combined paradox, allusion to classical and biblical myth (cf. his shorts on Neptune or on the Tower of Babel), and an unparalleled sense of absurdity and irony to create some of the most striking short stories (many fewer than five paragraphs) in any language. I don't mean to suggest that Dylan intentionally imitated Kafka's style for this album, but in a way he channels it.
Dylan draws heavily upon Western myths and symbols (St. Augustine, John Wesley Hardin, Tom Paine, the drifter, the landlord, the hobo, Eli - New Englander or prophet, you decide) and invents his own (Frankie Lee and Judas Priest). As Kafka did with his characters and objects, Dylan creates an alternate reality, where all expectations are wrong and anything can happen. So Tom Paine, abolitionist, is a slaveholder; St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church, becomes a martyr in a cloak of solid gold; John Wesley Hardin, bloodthirsty and unredeemable murderer, becomes a friend to the poor.
It's true that Dylan's earlier lyrics sound like Western culture processed by a Waring blender -- Highway 61 Revisited's title track alone puts a dozen familiar characters into bizarre situations -- but this collection of songs is far more sober, pastoral, and focused. Each song is about one character or situation, and that topic is fully developed. The references aren't used to amuse or entertain, but are treated seriously in their new context.
One further new feature of this bundle of songs is that each carries a strong moral message. Of course, this is Dylan, and that moral message is clear as mud in several songs. The conviction and focus of Dylan's voice tells you more about this moral purpose than any analysis I can make.
This album is, like Kafka's work, chock-ful of witty observations, one-liners, and strange comments. Like Kafka, though, the album's greatest strength lies in the atmosphere of confusion and absurdity these create. One line, the last line of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", sums up the album wonderfully: "Nothing was revealed."
The last two songs are exceptions to the above comments: they're fairly simple slide-guitar country songs, pretty but not too substantial. Think of them as a trailer for Nashville Skyline, if you will."