All along the watch tower: Bob Dylan’s eternal masterpiece.

By Tony Attwood

According to some the imagery in this song comes from the 21st chapter of the prophet Isaiah when a watchman on the watchtower sees two riders approaching.  Here is the text in the King James Version.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights.

I am not convinced there is a connection here beyond the remembrance of an image.  But I could be wrong.  I am still thinking about it.

“There must be some way out of here”; a simple but powerful start to this commentary on being controlled by organisations, social mores and responsibility.

And as the song progresses the singer does indeed begin to find his way out of here. With a harmonica style that was to be repeated with the tale of the Man in the Long Black Coat, reality is painted and then moved. The door is opened.

And yet this is done with no changes to the simple three chord basis of the entire song – musically it is just one line over and over and over again, reflecting the painfulness of existence from which the singer tries to emerge.  The music is the continuity of the control, the lyrics are the fight against that control.

Many of the lines have slipped into the cannon of comments used by Dylan fans – “life is but a joke”…. “this is not our fate”…. “the wind began to howl”…

And this is quite an achievement in what is for Dylan an astonishingly short song – just 130 words.  Dylan can write more than that in one verse, let alone a whole song.

As the song continues it simple journey the connection between the lines in terms of the words breaks down, but the music remains the same – same reality different meaning.  No matter where you try to escape to, that reality is always out there beating on your door.

And so in the end, two riders approach, and the wind howls – it is just a scene from a half painted landscape. Meaningless except that each line means something.

There’s too much confusion – everyone has a part of me – I will go somewhere else, and in the space of a few lines Dylan does just that. As he says, there’s no reason to get excited… none of it is real, and that’s why you only need one line, over and over and over again.

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”  Everyone is too tied up in social structure to look beyond.  The music just goes around and around and around.  And yet that simple three chord structure allows the voice and lead guitar to go where ever it wishes.  We are controlled by society, but psychologically we can go anywhere we wish.  No one can stop you thinking – after all, life is but a joke.

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  1. There’s a grammar error in this line

    “As the song continues it simple journey”

  2. How about this… the Joker is Dylan, the Thief is Allen Ginsburg. Why the latter?– the reference to “Howl and Other Poems”. Which makes the last line anything but meaningless– “Two riders were approaching the wind began to HOWL” IOW the two riders, Dylan and Ginsburg, are coming into their own, gaining recognition.–The song “Blowing in the WInd” and Ginsburg’s “Howl” achieving fame. Part of this song could be reminiscence about Dylan’s Greenwich Village Days or …he imagines himself talking to Ginsburg. “Businessmen they drink my wine…plowmen dig my earth… none of them along the line.” The railroad line– possibly a symbol for capitalism. So he’s saying that his art is exploited for money. And then comes the embarrassing part– embarrassing for this website, and for myself as well– he ridicules pundits (plowmen) who attempt to interpret the meaning of his poetry (dig my earth). Since he thinks we don’t really know what it’s worth, I think I’ll shut up now!

  3. My interpretation of this cryptic song is different , but this song is so open to interpretations that the saying ” your guess is good as mine” is relevant for any “guess”.
    I get this song as portraying the futility, stupidity, shallowness, absurdity, of mankind in face of god greatness , which inflicts upon mankind all kind of everyday troubles and eventually an apocalyptical disaster.
    Mankind futile, pathetic and stupid characteristics are outlined in the first two verses. The joker complains to the thief about being robbed , and the thief answers by explaining to the joker that “life is nothing but a joke” .
    Then , in the third verse two riders are approaching the city , signifying the inevitable apocalyptic doom (according to Isaias XI) which will nullify all human insignificant existence including our two “heroes” .
    As a matter of fact, most of the characters in “ John Wesley harding” are miserable, pathetic ones who eventually meet their tragic fate.

  4. “While all the women came and went….” gives a tip of the hat to TS Eliot: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”(Prufrock).However, Dylan holds onto the hope that there is indeed another way out of here, besides the doors of death.
    Eliot: “And I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker/And, in short, I was afraid”

  5. Interesting that Joe Judge and myself (elsewhere)independently came up with the samewhat the same interpretation of All Long The Watchtower); maybe there’s something to it!

  6. From Allan Ginsberg, songwriter Bob Dylan learns
    the effective use of imagery drawn from biblical texts; ‘Howl’ is a clear reflection of:

    “In the streets, they shall gird themselves with sackcloth; in the tops of their houses, and in their streets, everyone shall howl, weeping abundantly”.
    (Isaiah 15:3)

  7. If he wrote no other song, Dylan would be long remembered for this amazing masterpiece.

  8. 1968 The princes in the watchtower is his wife. She controls that he does not smoke, drink, take drugs or has other women (wildcats). He is coming home late in the night from a party, where he has turned into the the joker or the former jester. That means he has misused it all, and he fears the consequences from his wife (the wind began to howl). He gives himself excuses for his behavior. HE is the one, who earns the money from his music and poetry, and nobody understand, what it is worth.

  9. All we know is this: a joker – who complains about thieves – and a thief – who complains about false joker talk – makes a deal and they approach a princess.

  10. Both are evil characters, the joker and the thief. The thief, for some reason, wants to gain the princess’s trust, therefore he knows they have to come across as nice and honest. See ‘he kindly spoke’ and ‘So let us not talk falsely now’.

  11. I totally agree that there is no connection with Isaiah 21 (except that it features a watchman – never mentioned in the song). What puzzles me is the title “All along …”
    A watchtower is, by definition, a (duh) tower. We are not talking a platform outside Elsinore. Maybe my mind is sometimes far too literal to understand Dylan fully.

  12. I’ve just discovered that I was agreeing with Dave Van Ronk, who said:
    “That whole artistic mystique is one of the great traps of this business, because down that road lies unintelligibility. Dylan has a lot to answer for there because after a while he discovered that he could get away with anything—he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like ‘All Along the Watchtower’, which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can’t go along it.”

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