by Jochen Markhorst
“A negro named Mage” gets his face a little scratched in a wrestling match with the 15-year-old John Wesley Hardin and does not handle it in a very mature way, as we can learn from Hardin’s posthumously published autobiography The Life Of John Wesley Hardin, “as written by himself” (1896). The next day they meet again by chance and Mage wants revenge. He threatens Hardin with “a stout stick” and says he will kill him and throw him into the creek. The teenager Hardin pulls his Colt .44, says that Mage has to go his way, but in vain. He then shoots several times, Mage goes down and dies shortly thereafter. “That was the first man I ever killed and it nearly distracted my parents.”
In the introduction, the reader is promised that the work will shed new light on the desperado, that it will show that Hardin never murdered wantonly or in cold blood and that these pages will do a certain amount of justice to his memory.
This intention fails. Hardin studied law in prison and that undoubtedly contributed to his ability to express his thoughts, but even with an academic degree he remains an aggressive, hateful and repulsive psychopath, who fails to arouse any sympathy. After that first murder, for example, more black citizens follow, because, “if there was anything that could rouse my passion it was seeing imprudent Negroes.” When he is finally locked up in Huntsville Prison, Texas, in 1878, completely unfairly of course, he counts killing 40 people. The newspaper story that he would have killed six or seven men, just because they snored, annoys him: “That only happened once.”
As may be clear, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding has little in common with Hardin (the g is a misspelling of the bard). Dylan sings of a kind of Robin Hood, helpful and honest, ‘a friend of the poor’, invents an authentic looking reference to an incident in ‘Chaynee County’ (that name does not exist) and finally paints an elusive Harding. The historic Hardin was repeatedly arrested and eventually spent 17 years behind the bars.
Dylan’s preoccupation with outlaws does intrigue. And especially his tendency to upgrade certified nutcases to well-behaved, humane role models. Jesse James gets a single, friendly name check (in “Outlaw Blues”) and in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” he plants the paradox to live outside the law, you must be honest. A first standard bearer then of that motto is John Wesley Harding. The half-beatification of Billy The Kid (1973) may be attributed to Peckinpah or the angelic aura of protagonist Kris Kristofferson, but with “Hurricane” (1975) Dylan rather breaks his neck when he passionately defends a repeatedly convicted murderer and declares him a hero. A low point reaches the singer with “Joey” (1975), the epic hymn to the immoral Mafiose killer Joey Gallo.
Does Dylan sense a note of unease after the release of the record? He never plays the song, neither is he very affectionate or proud when asked about it. More to the point, Dylan is derogatory. It is actually a failed start to an old-fashioned, long cowboy ballad, he reveals in 1969 to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner. After one and a half verses he does not feel like it anymore, but because it was “a nice little melody”, a tune he does not want to waste, the poet just writes “a quick third verse”. Records it and dum-tee-dum, Bob’s your uncle. “But it was a silly little song.”
It was also the only song that did not seem to fit on the album, Dylan continues, and that is why he places it first and calls the album after the song. That immediately makes it very important, he smiles, and otherwise people would have said it was a throwaway song. The name “John Wesley Harding”? Ah, it fits the tempo and I had it at hand.
Peculiar. It is not the only time Dylan turns away from a song of his own, but there is no song that gets this systematically destroyed by the troubadour.
At least as amazing is the sheer nonsense. The song that does not fit the album is “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, a second outsider is “Down Along The Cove”. The title song fits seamlessly between those other riders, vagrants and desperadoes. And if it really is only about the rhythm of the syllables, the world’s best songwriter can effortlessly fit in ten alternatives. John Quincy Adams, George Edwin Butler, James Abram Garfield, John Griffith (“Jack”) London … or invent a name if necessary. Joe Franklin Dalton. In the tempo of the song and in the rhythm of the text, there are, of course, endless possibilities.
No, increased insight seems to be a more likely explanation for Dylan’s Judas kiss. In the months after the recording he is probably been made aware about the true nature of Hardin, and an ode to this extreme racist is more painful than ever in the days after the assassination of Martin Luther King (April ’68). Certainly for a renowned civil rights sympathizer such as Dylan. And presumably, his intellectual pride prevents him from admitting in the interview that he had no idea – hence the flight to transparent excuses and the exile to oblivion.
Pity, nonetheless. The song indeed does have a nice little melody and the lyrics are attractive; the same Kafkaesque clarity that leaves the mystery intact as, for example, “Drifter’s Escape”.
Remarkably few followers, too – apparently the colleagues have the same moral reservations as Dylan has after the recording. However, the only really serious cover is very satisfying and can be found on the brave, dazzling project of Thea Gilmore, who released an integral reinterpretation of the entire album in 2011. Her delicate, subtle, very well-kept version of the opening track elevates “John Wesley Harding” into a real overture. The first bars are bare, a sober mandolin instead of Dylan’s guitar, in the second verse organ and harmonica are added, some dry percussion and a bit later guitar, plus the muffled vocals of Thea: what a beautiful song it turns out to be to be.
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