John Wesley Harding

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1967

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


John Wesley Harding was the first album audiences heard from Bob Dylan after the iconic singer/songwriter was in a motorcycle accident that gave the artist a major brush with mortality. In 1967 – less than a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, at the height of the Vietnam War and in a year where releases like The Velvet Underground And Nico and The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band were revolutionizing rock music, Bob Dylan took a huge step inward with John Wesley Harding.

The album was the follow-up to Blonde On Blonde, an album known for its bombastic, anything-goes aesthetic. In contrast, John Wesley Harding was subtle and low-key. It also signaled Bob Dylan’s foray into country music. Politically, the album is rooted in the past, but themes of corruption and deceit could have easily been applied to the political climate of that year. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It could be Dylan’s state of mind after his accident, but John Wesley Harding has an air of resignation like no other Dylan album before it. Even its biggest hit “All Along The Watchtower” was almost immediately claimed by Jimi Hendrix with his blistering electric cover.

It may have been the accident. It may have been the weariness of being burdened with the weight of being “the spokesman of a generation,” but John Wesley Harding is definitely an album that is more concerned with trying to find its place in the current environment rather than trying to pave a new path a la Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde. The heavy acoustic elements of the album don’t sound like an appeasement to his folk base who thought Dylan alienated when he went electric. It’s more of a comfort album, foreshadowing his more laid-back late ‘60s and ‘70s albums such as Nashville Skyline and New Morning.

However, just because the music isn’t as revolutionary as Bob Dylan’s mid-60s tear doesn’t mean the lyrics are lacking. Much of John Wesley Harding is storytelling at its finest. “Dear Landlord,” “I am a Lonesome Hobo” and “Wicked Messenger” are as sharp as anything Dylan has written before his accident. The only minor complaint against John Wesley Harding is the lead-off track, which is probably one of the weakest tracks on the album.

For its time, John Wesley Harding may have sounded like a major disappointment for Dylan scholars. It came out at a time when Dylan’s voice was needed more than ever. But instead of dropping a revolutionary manifesto, he dropped a rather quiet, introspective album that was more suited as comfort music in chaotic times. Already an artist who was beginning to be known for wearing a multitude of disguises, with John Wesley Harding Bob Dylan was simply trying to find comfort in his own skin.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.