John Wesley Harding: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

John Wesley Harding was released at a time when the world of pop and rock was overwhelmed with alternatives to the old regime.  Blonde on Blonde  in 1966.  Sgt. Pepper in 1967, and Zappa’s Absolutely Free the same year all broke utterly new ground.

Indeed we also had songs like Tim Hardin’s “How can we hang on to a dream” in 1966, which sounded like just another pop ballad but was in fact an utter cry of despair.  There had never been anything like it before.

All that music seemed to be taking us in yet another direction – a direction of being totally either utterly haunted by what is in one’s mind or able to coujure up new images at will, just for the hell of it   Each of those works utterly different; each in terms of popular music was totally revolutionary.

And on 27 December 1967 we got John Wesley Harding, seemingly going in exactly the opposite direction of everything else.  Nothing is haunted, nothing is freaked out, nothing is psychedelic… but everything inside is utterly surreal.

In a very real sense Dylan takes us to another land with this album – and the key, I believe, is in the title song.  To understand the title song, you have to understand the album.  To understand the album, you have to understand the title song.

The actual historic John Wesley Hardin (not spelled as the album) was a killer, pure and simple, not some kind of Robin Hood.  He was also a self-propagandist, who claimed to have shot many more men than actually seemed to be the case.   Like politicians, he manipulated his own image.

And what did Dylan do?  He changed the spelling of his name, and changed his life story and his life style and recited it all in a simple four chord arrangement in three verses with a very simple bass, guitar and harmonica accompaniment  (the reverse of Blonde on Blonde style in fact).

The song ends with “he was never known to make a foolish move” – exactly the opposite of the truth.  The music is simple, the storyline anything but.

Dylan has said that the title track of the album is the one song that doesn’t fit with the album.  Heylin rejects this suggesting that Dylan is deliberately sending us on the wrong track – but then Heylin always says that when he either doesn’t like what Dylan said, or can’t make any sense out of it.

But the song is different from much of the rest of the album in that it is generalised.  Mostly the album is about specific incidents, specific moments – rather than giving a resume of a person’s life.  Much of the album is in fact surreal – the Watchtower, the damsel in chains in As I went out, St Augustine, Frankie Lee, the Drifter… this is not the real world in the slightest.

What Dylan is doing is using a very simple musical structure, and simple accompaniment, (and in Drifter a very very simple melody), but against this is putting a complex surreal story.

John Wesley Harding does this in a most curious way, by misspelling the surname and miss-telling the whole story.

The point is Dylan had already broken the mould of pop rock with his surreal lyrics, his one-track-across-the-whole-side, his monotone melodies, a piece about the wives of TS Eliot…

He’d done it, so he now went back to American folk history and a very simple sound – exactly the opposite route from everyone else – and then took that into a totally new world.

What Dylan does, as far as I can see (and I am not going to fall into the Heylin trap by saying that in some magical way I know for sure what is in Dylan’s mind) he makes it look at the start as if he is just going to give us some old 19th century American folk tales, but starting with the clues (the name, the storyline) in the first song, he rapidly takes us far, far away from that world.  By the time of the Watchtower we are on another planet – and the opening of that song seems to tell us that we are indeed not on this planet any more.

Dylan did unusually give us a clue as to what he was up to, saying in 1968, “What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words… Each line has something.”

In Rolling Stone magazine in 1969 Dylan added, “I was gonna write a ballad on … like maybe one of those old cowboy … you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn’t want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that …

Certainly the song, with its simple melody and use of the normal four chords for such a song give us no sign of surrealism.  Nor do the lyrics at first, if we don’t know about the real John Wesley Hardin.

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man

Except, hang on, he’s just a regular guy with guns.

But by the third verse he has become a national Robin Hood

All across the telegraph
His name it did resound
But no charge held against him
Could they prove
And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move

And that’s it.   If we really listen to the song we are left saying, “What?”  and “Who?”  And while we are still saying that, up on track two pops Tom Paine (propogandist of American independence from Britain – I’m sure totally known in the US, but only known to historians in the UK).  We’ve jumped back 100 years and are in stories that have more to do with Alice in Wonderland than a visit to American history.

So once more I disagree with Heylin who limits an understanding of the album in general and the title song in particular by saying it “is an album full of outlaws, drifters, immigrants, messengers and saints.”  No, no.  This is an album that like a dream, starts from something we half know from having read a book or seen it on TV, and then takes us into a world where everything is turned upside down, and nothing is real any more, before neatly returning us to the real world at the end.

The killer thug has become the saviour of the oppressed while the band plays on.  And that’s just the opening song.

Index to all the songs

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2 Responses to John Wesley Harding: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan draws on the Bible here:

    “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law” (Romans 3:12)

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