John Wesley Harding: the art work

Patrick Roefflaer

This article is part of a series of over 30 articles which review the artwork on each of Dylan’s albums.   Today it is John Wesley Harding.

You can find an index to all the previous articles in this series here

  • Album: John Welsley Harding
  • Released: December 27, 1967
  • Photographer: John Berg
  • Liner Notes: Bob Dylan
  • Art-director: John Berg

1967 was the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, psychedelic music, the Summer of Love… Pretty “colors ev’rywhere”, as The Rolling Stones put it in ‘She’s a Rainbow’.

What a sharp contrast with Bob Dylan’s new album released in the last week of the year. John Wesley Harding, the first new material of the singer in more than 18 months, appears without any publicity. No sitars on this album, no screeching guitar solos, just twelve short acoustic songs with pared-down lyrics.

The monochrome cover too seems simple and down to earth: surrounded by a grey border, you see an informal black and white photo, like a snapshot from a family album.

At first glance there are four unknown men with hats. For most people at the time it must have taken a while to recognize the man in the middle as Bob Dylan. He looks very different to the young man from the ’66 World Tour: gone is the big curly hairdo, gone are the dark glasses…. They are replaced by a black cowboy hat and a fluffy beard.  And then there’s that grin… He looks older, grown up…

The austere photo is taken by Columbia Records art director John Berg himself. “[Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman called me and said Bob wanted to be able to see the pictures right away to make a decision, so I suggested we use Polaroids.”  For his trip, all the way to Woodstock, Berg is accompanied by his boss, Bob Cato. Cato carries a color camera and Berg a black and white one.

The photo session takes place in the garden of the house of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. “It was the coldest day of the year’, recalled Berg. ‘It was like 20 below zero. It was so cold that we ran outside, the Bauls, the woodworker and whoever else were there, took pictures until it was no longer possible and then rushed back in for a brandy. As soon as I took a picture, someone tucked the Polaroid under his arm, as they should not get too cold during development. Inside, we placed the photos on a fancy large table and Bobby chose this photo for the cover.”

It all sounds very simple.

But is it really that simple? And who are those other guys?

The Bauls of Bengal

Who are these people Berg called Bauls and how do they end up with Bob Dylan?

They are identified as Purna (actually Purnan) and Luxman Das, sons of Nabani Das Khyepa Baul, the last real ancient adept avadhuta tantric bauls of Bengal.

Bengal, a region in the northeast of India, has had a tradition of itinerant musicians going back centuries, called bauls. Bauls were Sanskrit scholars in the oral tradition. In their mostly self-written songs, these men convey a message of “eternal truth.” “Baul” means something akin to “half way” implying that they don’t care much about social norms. It is a nickname that the musicians wear with pride.

When in the mid-1960s, influenced by John Coltrane and The Beatles, interest in Indian music arouse, the poet Allen Ginsberg advised Grossman to contact the Bauls. Ginsberg had moved to India in 1962 and stayed for some time with Nabani Das.

Grossman contacted him, but as bauls had never left India before, Nabani Das wouldn’t travel to the USA. However he advised his sons to take up the invitation.

In an interview published in 1995 in The Telegraph India, Purna Das shared how he ended up in Woodstock. “It started with a phone call. It was [January] 1967 and I was living in Kali Temple Road. The Oberoi Grand Hotel boss told me that Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, wanted to meet me. […] He invited me to America. I said yes and said I would bring ten to twelve people. That was fine for him.”

Their first performance took place on September 14, 1967, at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. They were on the bill as LDM Spiritual Band, with LDM standing for Lok Dharma Mahashram. That was an idea from Asoke Fakir, a journalist who – the only one in the company – spoke English and therefore set himself up as their manager. Asoke also happened to be the founder and “International Chairman” of the Mahashram of the same name.

But when Asoke suddenly disappeared, taking all the money with him, Grossman provided shelter for the stranded musicians in a newly furnished apartment above a barn in the grounds around his home. “Albert took [us] to Woodstock,” confirms Purna, “It was there that I first met Bob Dylan, as well as artists like Joan Baez, members of The Band, Tina Turner, Peter, Paul …”

Dylan showed interest in the company. He liked to experiment with their strange instruments and listened to their philosophy that wisdom is obtained by getting to know your own body. “One night he told me that if I am a Bengali Baul from India, he was an American Baul,” Purna Das recalls. “We both bring music with roots. Our goals are the same, he said: “Sing to the people, tell their translations and spread love through music”. ” Purna believes that Dylan asked de Bauls to pose for the photo in order to make them more famous.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Some fans see the artwork of John Wesley Harding as an answer/parody to that of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Although there’s no sign of him playing any of that albums’ song during the months he spent playing with the Band in the basement of their Big Pink house, Dylan must have been aware of that album as his portrait can be seen on the cover. Like everybody else in that picture he was contacted to give permission to use it.

On the cover photo, The Beatles are surrounded by a multitude of famous figures: movie stars, writers, singers, philosophers and Eastern gurus.

Like The Beatles, Dylan takes center stage in his photo, but instead of a mass of familiar cardboard heads, his company consists of only three men. Two of them can be seen as his Eastern gurus.

Sally Grossman however didn’t buy that theory. In 2002, she declared, “The Bauls lived there [in Woodstock] and so did Dylan. Their attendance was not planned. The fact that the local carpenter is also in the picture proves that it is all pure coincidence.”

That carpenter and stonemason is identified as Charlie Joy, who happened to be working at Grossman’s house that day.

The fifth man

Now there’s only the white hat, front left that remains a mystery.

From one of two other photos known from this session, we know that a fifth person was indeed present. It is not known who he is and especially why only his hat can be seen in the photo. Is the man squatting? Or is his hat left on a stump?

More Beatles?

Music fragments played in reverse and psychedelic effects on the covers from that time stimulate – perhaps sharpened by mind-altering means – to search for hidden messages. People have even been caught making a hole in a cover to be able to play it on their turntable. The most striking example is the ridiculous but persistent “Paul is dead” story.

Dylan’s seemingly simple cover does not escape the sleuths either. On March 9, 1968, the American magazine Rolling Stone published an article entitled “Dylan Record Puts Beatles Up a Tree.” It explains that faces would be hidden just about everywhere in the cover photo of John Wesley Harding. “Most obvious is a group of faces that become visible when you turn the cover upside down; in the treetop, in the lighter part, you can see at least seven faces. Turning the cover in other directions reveals even more faces: near elbows, bushes and the lines of the coats. ”

If you really want to, you can spot John Lennon and / or George Harrison as the most visible figures.

That leads to speculation that the faces would be those of the four Beatles, plus some of their friends. Donovan maybe?

The author of the article, Michael Ochs, contacted the photographer about it.

“It’s quintessentially Dylan,” replied John Berg vaguely, “Very mystical.”

He didn’t want to go into it further. “Happy Hunting,” he added.

In the 1990s, John Bauldie wrote a series about Bob Dylan’s covers. For this he asked Berg again about the hidden images. “I got a call from Rolling Stone in San Francisco,” he explained. “Someone had discovered little Beatles faces and Jesus’ hand in the trunk. Well, I had a proof of the cover on the wall. So I took it off and turned it around and yes… Hahaha! I mean, if you wanted to see it, you saw it. I was just as amazed as anyone else.”

No longer monochrome

In England and the rest of Europe the record was released weeks later than in the US: at the end of January or even in February 1968. Curiously enough, the gray border around the photo has been adjusted for these pressings: a kind of pale beige in England and a bit sepia-ish for the mainland. In the eighties more color variants followed with a kind of fluorescent yellow as a bizarre low point.

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One comment

  1. I see George, Ringo, and John; but no Paul, as we all know, at this time, that Paul was dead.

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