John Wesley Harding. Some 38 minutes of music, readily available for your delectation on vinyl or CD.
Let’s imagine that this artefact appears out of the blue in an alternate, Dylan-free world.
What are we to make of it?
We consider the packaging. The grey border around an over-exposed black and white photograph: the singer in a wood, smiling – or grimacing – surrounded by an odd-looking bunch of men. Above, a title in plain black letters. Turn the sleeve over and it’s slightly less austere, offering a straightforward list of the album’s tracks and personnel. But that is followed by a bizarre and unexplained story, about someone called Terry Shute and Frank and three kings. We start to wonder if we are in the hands of a surrealist.
We take the record out: is this going to be weird? But no, we put it on and hear a succession of short, measured songs. The singer is calm and clear, the melodies plain and the arrangements simple. A muted musical palette, matching the monochrome sleeve. It is a sound outside of any recognised fashion or obvious chronology. From somewhere within the American folk tradition, but where, exactly? There are some country inflections. Some songs have clearly been written with a guitar, some at a piano. The album is self-contained and confident; there is no grandstanding, no ingratiation. It is as if its stories will unfold, timelessly, whether we listen to them or not.
And we do listen, sucked in by the musicians’ steady progress and the songs’ redolent phrases, couched in apparently straightforward language but with a meaning that often seems to skip and weave, moving just beyond the listener’s reach.
Twelve songs come and twelve songs go and as the record finishes we are irresistibly drawn back to the beginning. Its hermetic world demands to be explored.
The more we listen, the more we find that doesn’t quite fit the surface impression, and we’re reminded of those sleeve-notes. We might think we are on solid ground, but a single word can open up spaces beneath our feet.
Let’s try that first song again, the title track, apparently an encomium to an outlaw with a heart of gold. a Robin Hood figure:
‘John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand’
(Every hand? How many did he have?)
‘All along this countryside he opened many a door’
(That isn’t a normal English idiom, is it? Which countryside are we talking about? And opening doors with your hands full of firearms can’t be straightforward…)
So what is going on? The questions start to pile up. We seem to have stumbled into the world of an African praise singer, who finds himself employed by some unpredictable gangster. The imbongi is treading very carefully, avoiding what can’t be said, taking refuge in bland generalities, his tongue forced into some unlikely positions.
Welcome to the world of John Wesley Harding, an apparently solid and straightforward structure with some oddly placed mirrors, some gaps in the floorboards and staircases which don’t come out where you expected them to.
It would be fascinating whoever had built it.
– o O o –
But back on Earth-Prime, in our normal, Dylan-infused existence, it is virtually impossible to come to John Wesley Harding with no prior knowledge or preconceptions.
Some listeners will have followed every twist and turn of his convoluted fifty-year career. Most will know something and have some pictures in their mind. The protest singer with his harmonica holder and righteous anger. The mid-sixties hipster with his Stratocaster and shades. The thirty-something break-up poet of Blood On The Tracks. The conviction of the born-again gospeller. The eighties ex-champ back in the ring with a broken nose and a cauliflower ear, battling a lack of inspiration and some dubious fashions…
So it goes on. No single snapshot can contain the whole story, as Todd Haynes’ 2007 biopic I’m Not There so wonderfully captured with its cast of different actors representing Bob. “Bob Dylan” was a self-conscious construct from the start, when an old-beyond-his-years Woody Guthrie clone with a dubious accent and a dodgier back story first trod the boards. And the man behind the construct has always been prepared to play with that. Consider his words to the audience at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City in October 1964 (captured on the Bootleg Series Vol 6 release):
‘Don’t let this scare you: it’s just Hallowe’en. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.’
Whatever else it may be, John Wesley Harding is the sound of an accomplished performance artist slipping into a new persona.
But, then, I’m hardly the first person to make that point.
At this stage in the game one needs to justify adding anything to the enormous pile of criticism and comment, speculation and bullshit, that has accreted around this particular artist. It is a pile considerably higher than any other performer of his time has accumulated. Anyone who has read this far in the present volume will either have waded through a lot of Dylanology already, or may be daunted by the heap and wondering what might be the best way in.
Against that backdrop, whatever degree of familiarity you may have with the work and the literature, I think there is a real value in a focus on a single record from a particular time; in gripping just one of the personae. Of course, it cannot tell the whole story. But by this point, what can? There are a succession of biographies out there, along with critical overviews and even a song-by-song examination of his entire catalogue. The man himself has contributed some memoirs, the teasingly-entitled Chronicles Volume One (some nine years after its publication there is little sign of further instalments appearing). Good, bad or indifferent, nothing can be definitive.
A deep dive into one particular record can not only throw new light on work that is worthy of closer attention but also provide a new prism for viewing the bigger picture. But why this particular release?
I have already hinted at its attractions and its depth: it is powerful music on any terms, which amply repays repeated listening. And the closer you look and listen, the deeper it will burrow under your skin.
It does not seem to have had the attention it deserves; it is routinely admired and acknowledged as one of Dylan’s great albums but does not seem to be as cherished as some. This is partly because of its austerity and restraint: it does not flaunt its beauty or make access to it particularly easy – across its 12 songs, for example, there is not a single chorus to hook the listener’s ear.
But, more than that, it falls to one side of the main narrative arc that has become the received wisdom about Dylan’s development as an artist. The first phase from his acoustic beginnings, the protest and the more personal songs, the controversy of going electric, bestriding the world with hit records and sell-out tours – the phase up to Blonde On Blonde – that was Dylan out in front, setting the pace, changing fashions, getting stronger and stronger as a writer and performer, plucking a succession of his greatest songs from the ether. Then came his motorcycle accident and the retreat to Woodstock, a slowing down and a loss of drive and direction. Yes, The Basement Tapes represent an interesting period of experimentation and renewal, but Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Pat Garrett and the nadir of Self Portrait are essentially the lesser works of an artist becalmed, before he got his mojo back by reconnecting with The Band for the Before The Flood tour and warmed up with Planet Waves for the stone-cold classic that is Blood On The Tracks. Against that backdrop, the fact of his taking three days out of his time in the doldrums to pin down so strong and strange and singular a set of songs as John Wesley Harding doesn’t quite fit. So people tend to nod respectfully towards it, without listening to it very often or trying to integrate it with the wider story.
For me, this is a wonderful collection of songs that deserves a wide and attentive audience in its own right. But it is also a crucial part of Bob Dylan growing up and becoming more adult in his writing. That might sound an odd thing to say about a man who had already carved out a career in a way which contrasted the literacy and depth of his language from the Top Forty’s usual bathos, which he had memorably parodied:
‘It was Rock-a-day Johnny singin’, “Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa,
Our love’s a-gonna grow, ooh-wah, ooh-wah”’
There is no shortage of mature songwriting on his first six releases – from ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ to ‘Desolation Row’. But his seventh album signals a new discipline and also shows new doubts – about religion, politics, heroes, and about himself, what he is doing and where he is going.
– o O o –
A word about my own perspective.
I started listening to Bob Dylan in 1971, aged 13 or 14. I started with Greatest Hits and quickly realised I wanted everything. But records were expensive at that time in relation to disposable income (it took a couple of weeks’ paper round to buy an album) and so it was a while before I got there. More Greatest Hits was the first record I bought on its release. I am still listening 40 odd years later: I think I’ve got all the mainstream records, but the burgeoning bootleg market did for any aspirations to completeness. I’ve seen him live half a dozen times and recognise that his performing prowess is waning: I’m a fan rather than a fanatic.
From the start, John Wesley Harding struck me as something different and special. I was drawn into its particular world and would say that it was my favourite Dylan album (though Blood On The Tracks would subsequently supplant it). As I spent 1971 and 1972 getting to grips with the back catalogue I scanned the music press for signs of new activity and clues to what had gone before. The Concert for Bangla Desh confirmed his command of the headlines and ‘George Jackson’ showed that he had not forgotten how to say something forcefully with an acoustic guitar.
Then I chanced upon Michael Gray’s ‘Song & Dance Man’ in a local bookshop, the first bit of real Dylanology I had encountered, and I was hooked by the scope for digging in to the detail of the songs and the fact that they would bear the weight of that exploration. I was particularly taken with Gray’s deconstruction of John Wesley Harding’s title track, which concluded:
‘The clichés of thought exploded so precisely in the song are still in the way today; but Dylan has done battle with them. ‘John Wesley Harding’ joins with the rest of the album of that name to give us, through this ‘battling’, Dylan successfully engaged in the mature artistic attainment of reconstruction and revaluation: Dylan at his most seriously and intelligently creative.’
Those words rang very true to me 40 years ago, as I was getting my ears and brain around Bob Dylan’s music. They will stand very well now as the starting point of a deeper look at this decidedly deep record.
 Download it by all means, but the sleeve is worthy of your attention too.
 ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’, Freewheelin’ (1962)
 Gray, Michael (1972) Song & Dance Man (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon)
 op.cit., p40