All Along the Watchtower: the lyrics and the music

“The lyrics and the music” is a series which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

Every day is much the same.

By Tony Attwood

“All along the watchtower” remains Dylan’s most self-performed song with 2268 performances noted between 1974 and 2018, the song having appeared as the fourth track on John Wesley Harding in 1967.  Its popularity was of course boosted greatly when it  appeared on Jimi Hendrix “Electric Ladyland” album in 1968 in a completely different form, a form which Bob himself later partially adopted in concert.

Going back to this original version the sparseness of the recording still hits me, with the harmonica giving an extra eerie quality to the sound, which combines with the endlessly repeated simple chord sequence of just three chords moving up and down.

The bass too follows the same path, as only the vocal line and the harmonica improvisation between the verses adds any musical variety.

As such it is not surprising that the song can only last 2 minutes 30 seconds.   At that length the ceaseless repetition of the musical format is acceptable: any more and we might begin to tire.  For in effect we get that simple chord sequence 40 times, and that’s it.   There is no variation to the chords, or the bass part, with only the very smallest amount of change to be heard from the percussion.  Only the lyrics move us on.

Here is the format for the “A minor, G, F, G, A minor” sequence, showing the number of times the sequence is repeated.

  • Musical intro: 4
  • Verse 1: 8
  • Interlude: 4
  • Verse 2: 8
  • Interlude: 4 (slight variation from percussion)
  • Verse 3: 8
  • Conclusion: 4

In short, we hear that same sequence 40 times in this two and a half minute song.

To use such a minimal amount of music for any song and make the song worth listening to even once is quite remarkable.  To turn this into the song that Dylan has performed more times than any other is, by any measure, extraordinary.

But of course to make this work, Dylan’s has changed the music.  For example, the last time we featured the song in the Never Ending Tour series was 2018: “Shuffle to the beat” by which time it had become a completely different song.

And of course it had to become something else – with a new rhythm, new melody, new musical intermission, new chord sequence, new musical coda… in fact only the lyrics remain.

But in many ways it seems impossible for such an incredibly simple song even to survive on stage, let alone be more played than any other piece.

Of course what kept the song in the limelight to a large degree was the Hendrix version which because of the repeated chord structure gave Hendrix the chance to improvise over the sequence.  In particular, the second musical break which lasts as long as two sung verses, grabbed the public’s imagination.

Thus musically what Dylan produced, was a very simple musical grid of just those three chords, around which an infinite number of improvisations could be made.  And in essence, this is what the traditions upon which pop and rock music is based.

The ancient folk songs of England, which seem to have originated somewhere around 400 AD, were of course in this strophic form – verse, verse, verse … allowing the singers to add and subtract verses according to their situation, their audience and recent events.  And as songs were taken from village to village, so the music would vary somewhat according to the singer’s capabilities, as would the lyrics.

In effect what what Dylan has done in a contemporary context is much the same, endlessly varying the songs in performance.  What Hendrix did however was utterly to transform the song – something which then gave Dylan the impetus to do himself, to his own song.

Transformations of this type however work most readily when the musical structure is simple: and this is what Dylan provided here.   A melodic line repeated four times each with its own lyrics, over the same, repeating chord sequence.  Only later did Dylan see the possibility of changing the musical structure as well.

And perhaps this notion of rewriting songs over and over all started from this one song, for I can’t immediately think of any other song that uses the same concept of four lines of identical chord changes with just a changing melody.  Maybe it was the musical structure of this song, that made The Never Ending Tour possible – for Dylan could take songs we all knew, but make every year’s concert worth visiting, just to hear what he had done to the song since last year.

But whatever the explanation for its popularity, “All Along the Watchtower” remains an intriguing and much loved, very simple piece of music, in which the musical accompaniment in Dylan’s original version expresses perhaps the eternity of life.   I still have that imagined image of a medieval castle in which for everyone, every day is much the same…

The lyrics and the music: the series…

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