The subject matter of the John Wesley Harding songs


by Tony Attwood

This article continues the series in which a very simple and short meaning is assigned to each Dylan song.  It is not suggested that this action of giving the briefest of descriptions to each song can convey the full meaning of the song but rather that these very short meanings help us try to find patterns in Bob Dylan’s songwriting which may be obscured through the full in-depth analysis provided elsewhere on this site.

A list of the articles in this series is provided in the index Bob Dylan songs of the 1960s

By the time Bob Dylan turned to writing the songs for his new album in 1967 he had already composed or improvised at least 86 songs that year which we now know as the Basement Tapes, as well as sketch out the lyrics that were found in the notebook that became the New Basement Tapes.

But Bob clearly did not want to use Basement Tape ideas of the NBT booklets for his new album, for as we know he now turned to writing 12 new tracks for his LP, eventually called John Wesley Harding.

And this is where our descriptions have to change, because as Dylan himself as admitted in several interviews, for this album he was often simply taking an opening line (or a single idea) and then writing lines that followed from it, without any real significance or deep connected meaning within or between those lines. Thus inside these songs we find lyrics that are drawn from Kafka, occasionally from elsewhere, and we have our result: song lyrics which are alluring and interesting, clearly not real, but not dada or surreal either.  And then two utterly different pieces tacked on the end.

Following the pattern used in the earlier articles in this series I am trying to write the briefest of summaries of the subject matter of each song, and thus below is the short-form precis of the JWH songs.  The descriptions here are longer than those used for songs in the earlier part of the decade – which is a reflection of the songs more than a change of the style of summary.

Thus these songs do not, for the most part, build on the days and nights in the Basement; they are something quite new.  And the final two are clearly quite removed from the rest of the album.

Here is the list, with the shortest of descriptions that I can find in each case…

So what can we make of this?   After a lot of pondering my best shot is

  • Kafkaesque randomness, stream of thoughts: 7
  • WH Auden tribute: 1
  • Eternity: 1
  • Do your own thing: 1
  • Love: 2

Now let us compare that with the Basement Tapes.

The two most popular subjects within the Basement Tapes were “Love and lust” (with 10 songs) and “being trapped and escaping from being trapped” with nine.  Here we have Kafkaesque randomness at the top of the list, which is certainly not that far from “being trapped” – and certainly The Drifter’s Escape takes the Kakaesque situation to the limits.

Thus there is a continuity in Dylan’s thought processes here – or perhaps we might say an some continuity but also evolution as well.

Looking back to the Basement Tapes topic list we find included

  • Love and lust: 10
  • Being trapped, and escaping from being trapped: 9
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Surrealism: 1

And as such, although the formatting and style of the music on JWH is different, there is a continuity of thought that I perceive here.  It is not something I have always seen commented upon elsewhere where reviewers tend just to take each album in isolation.

So taking the full list of the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s songs through the 50s and 60s my list of subjects, including JWH is shown below.  Where there is just one number this means there are no JWH songs in this area.  JWH songs are indicated by there being two numbers: the first number represents the total from previous albums or periods, the number after the plus sign is the total from JWH and the overall total is after the equals sign.

This is the complete Bob Dylan subject list up to and including the JWH songs…

  • Art: 3
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped: 9
  • Blues: 8
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Change: 4
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 7
  • Eternity: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 2
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 7 + 1 = 8
  • It’s a mess: 3
  • Leadership: 2
  • Lost love / moving on: 26
  • Love, desire: 24 + 1 = 25
  • Lust : 1
  • Moving on: 7
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest 20
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 4 + 7 = 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 3
  • WH Auden tribute: 0 + 1 = 1

As usual I have now selected out the themes that are occurring most regularly, defined here as being songs which have ten or more titles in the group.

  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Protest: 20
  • Love, desire: 25
  • Lost love / moving on: 26

Of these, Randomness (with seven JWH songs) and love and desire (with one) are the only two categories from his main list that Dylan utilised in the JWH recordings.

The conclusion is that Dylan was indeed looking to break away from his previous writing in creating the JWH album.  He did this by taking the theme of randomness that he had used before and taking it into a new Kafkaesque dimension.  He most certainly made a clean break from his time in the Basement, deliberately setting out to do something quite different.

And then, seemingly at the end, he did it again, for having written the ten JWH songs that are of a type, he added the final two love songs that really don’t have too much (musically or lyrically) to do with all that had gone before: I’ll be your baby tonight  and Down along the cove.

JWH is an album that before those two tracks makes a lot of sense – it is an exploration of the meaning of life from many forms, including the randomness that occurs when one takes an incident or (in terms of the actual writing, a single line) and moves outward from there without deliberate reference to the rest of the world.

But those two final tracks are quite different.  Is there a meaning to be assigned to their inclusion therein, or did Bob just run out of ideas, or did he just think “I’ve had enough of this format – let’s do something different?  Or did “I’ll be your baby tonight” just pop into his head, he quite liked it and then thought, we can’t have that all on its own?

I don’t know, and even if Bob tells us I am not sure I’d 100% believe him!

The series will continue.



  1. I view JWH as the story of ” Bob Dylan ” from his arrival in New York to his life as a loving husband. All his adventures since his creation are told from song to song till finally he is at peace .

  2. i cannot unhear the sequence of lyrics….. “if you cannot bring good news then dont bring any……” followed by “down along the cove I spied my baby coming my way” then “people watching us we go by know we’re in love yes they understand” then “close your eyes, close the door.. you dont have to worry anymore” then several years of country music….. (oh by the way watching your girlfriend stumble around the room with her eyes shut trying to find the door in order to close it is an amusing thought)

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