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


  1. Dylan draws on the Bible here:

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

  2. Here is my take on the album. The core of it consists of songs 2 through 10, each of which is a kind of morality tale. The themes are temptation, good and evil, and redemption. Dylan takes this theme and looks at it from every angle, from the position of the sinner, of the savior, of sinner who repents, the one who is utterly destroyed, the one who is caught in the middle, and so forth. They are like painterly sketches of the same object seen from different views, or like parts of a play each read by a different actor. The two simple love songs at the end, which preview his next album, Nashville Skyline, are the resolution. And the initial song is a kind of prelude or overture (to use the nomenclature of a musical suite).

    I agree that the notion that the first song doesn’t fit with the rest of the album is too facile an explanation, and that throwing out this idea was probably a calculated misdirection on Dylan’s part. I don’t think it’s an accident that it gives its title to the album as a whole. Stylistically, as a ballad along the lines of Woodie Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” it’s set apart. But thematically it’s connected. The key, I think, is to be found in the song, “I Am A Lonesome Hobo,” in which Dylan gives us what could easily be his personal lifelong credo: “Stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man’s code, and hold your judgment for yourself lest you wind up on this road.” The second of these warnings, I think, is closest to what Dylan is all about: live by no man’s code. And in the title song he constructs exactly such a character: an outlaw who is a kind of Robin Hood, someone who lives according to his own code and no one else’s.

    The same message is echoed in a more spiritual sense in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” when he writes: “No martyr is among ye now whom you can call your own, so go on your way accordingly but know you’re not alone.” This theme of man as being spiritually on his own, who must fashion his own code to live by rather than take direction from a higher authority, crops up in other Dylan songs of the period, such as “Tears of Rage” from The Band’s Music From Big Pink (We carried you in our arms on Independence Day, but now you’d throw us all aside and put us all away), “Went To See The Gypsy” from New Morning” (I went back to see the gypsy. It was nearly early dawn. They gypsy’s door was open wide, but the gypsy was gone), and more jocularly “Working on a Guru,” which appears on Another Self-Portrait (Working on a guru, working on a guru. Well it’s true, it could be you. I’m working on a guru).

    What’s so fascinating is that an album seemingly so well thought out in a structural sense could have sprung from Dylan so spontaneously. This, I think, is what marks it as a work of genius.

  3. There are good threads of reasoning in all of these responses to the original article. Certainly Dylan confounded logical reading of his words on many levels. Having had the album JWH since it’s release I have looked at many writings about the songs over the years. Some comments I have agreed with in the past are that “Went To See The Gypsy” concerns an “almost meeting” between Bob and Elvis Presley. Some of the songs on JWH seem allegorical. Particularly Frankie Lee and Judas Priest which might well be considering Dylan’s relationship with manager Grossman, particularly the references to material versus spiritual concerns in life. At the time, a Bob recovering from his motorcycle accident may possibly have resented being pushed into work by his manager? As to the track itself JWH I think that Bob is fusing some of his own idealisations of the outlaw’s life into the myth of the outlaw Hardin. Wasn’t it Bob himself who had earlier written that “to live outside the law, you must be honest?” Wasn’t Bob cast in the role of the observer in the Pat Garrett movie? The myth and the reality are frequently at odds in his own work, but Bob might well argue that the hundreds of journalists and would be analyst/commentators on his songs have mostly misinterpreted his songs anyway… why not go the whole way by 1967?

  4. You might well be right but for me the biggest effect was disappointment when I read about the gunslinger John Wesley Hardin. As well as outlaw and gunfighter, I thought he might be like most of the Irish raparees and highway men or some kind of Robin Hood,.

    The Wikipedia entry on him (copied by many other posts) says that he is a folk icon without really illustrating that assertion. However I wonder whether Wikipedia and others who might know are skating over an unpleasant fact, that JW Harding WAS an icon — to post-civil war racist southern whites, also resentful of USA law. Think about it — JWH tries to join the confederacy and his second killing is a freed slave. A high proportion of those he claims to have killed are Blacks, Mexican and American Indians. Another high proportion are US Lawmen although his career would have made contact with many of those inevitable.

    I have not researched this any further but it would not be the first time that people with a grievance adopted a murder, even possibly a psychopath … and made him a hero.

  5. History’s revised -especially here by writers chased after by the UnAmerican Activities Committee:

    Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men
    Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glenn
    Feared by the rich, loved by the poor
    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood
    He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green
    They vowed to help the people of the King
    They handled all the trouble on the English country scene
    And still found plenty of time to sing
    (Dick James: The Ballad Of Robin Hood ~ Sigman)

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