John Wesley Harding

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1967

http://www.bobdylan.com

REVIEW BY: David Bowling

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/12/2008

Bob Dylan’s motorcycle careened out of control on July 29, 1966 and slammed the singer to the ground. Dylan retreated to Woodstock, New York to recover. While recovering, he found time to record some tunes at home with the Band, make plans for his next album and probably read the Bible.

Traveling to Nashville to record, Dylan was backed by only veteran country artists Charley McCoy on bass, Ken Buttrey on drums and Pete Drake on steel guitar. What emerged from all this was the stark, sparse, apocalyptic yet strangely beautiful John Wesley Harding.

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John Wesley Harding is now viewed as the beginning of Dylan’s move away from his earlier sound. The songs were compact and, for the most part, more to the point that something like, say, “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” Biblical imagery made several appearances in the lyrics. The result was one of the more surprising and revelatory albums of Bob Dylan’s career.

Side one of John Wesley Harding contains a lot of scriptural imagery. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” finds the narrator receiving a vision from the early Christian bishop. “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is a morality tale about temptation. Whether Dylan ever experienced temptation on this level is unknown, but he makes it seem convincing regardless.

Oddly, one of Dylan’s signature songs contained on this album is one his few songs not to be associated with him. Jimi Hendrix took out Dylan’s biblical references, re-routed the chord structure, cracked up his psychedelic guitar and turned “All Along The Watchtower” into one of his own songs -- yet in its own way, Dylan’s original is just as compelling.

Side two features a number of songs featuring the downtrodden and marginalized of society. “Drifters Escape,” “Dear Landlord,” “I Am A Lonesome Traveler” and “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” all talk about struggle, trial and tribulation of the individual. Dylan’s protest against society tended to express itself in the stories of these types of individuals. Even the title and leadoff song of the album features just such a person; John Wesley Harding himself may have been an unsympathetic 19th century killer, but he fit the mold of a person that Dylan would lament.

Despite the struggles and imagery of the first 10 songs, John Wesley Harding closes on a positive and sensitive note. Both “Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are love songs. For Dylan, in 1967, love and ultimately hope were not dead.

John Wesley Harding presents a deeper, ageless and eternal Bob Dylan and finds this album, 40 years after its release, one of the crowning achievements of his career.

Rating: A

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© 2008 David Bowling 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.