John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s 1968 album, lands at number 301 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums. Upon its release, it was both critically and commercially well received, but, now, I contend, the album less familiar today, save for “All Along the Watchtower,” which may be more familiar because of the scores of covers it’s spawned. I originally purchased the album because I had to exchange a duplicate gift. Admittedly, its construction, its acclaim, and its subject matter didn’t draw me in: it was the cheapest Dylan album at the megastore and I recognized “Watchtower.”
After listening through it, JWH became a fast favorite, mostly because it was unlike the other Dylan albums I was familiar with—Blonde on Blonde and The Freeewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here, the songs are comparatively spare and straightforward. Two musicians accompany on bass and drums (the last two tracks do feature a steel guitar as well) and the rest is all Dylan—piano, guitar, and harmonica. The surrealistic, often silly, often associative, multivalenced story-lyrics are absent, except in the liner notes—a nonsensical narrative about the central song on the album. What surprised me initially is that this album could be so cohesive without being so grand and strange and epic and metaphorical in Dylan’s typical fashion. Another surprise, too, was the album’s last track “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Its slow-drag tempo and the steel guitar that glints like the back of a polished spoon—easy, familiar, warm—anticipates the Nashville Skyline connections, and the subject—a stopped-time chronicle of momentary surrender--seemed somehow utterly sexy to me.
The album isn’t a complete departure for Dylan either, and perhaps the recontextualization of the familiar make this album listenable and so solid. It’s peopled with the same sort of characters that crowd his other songs, a pastiche of the actual historical (John Wesley Hardin, Tom Paine, St. Augustine) and the archetypal (a damsel in chains, gamblers, drifters, and immigrants) who interact with the speaker and the balladeer. The specific personages he mentions on this album are all from the past, and most of them American.
In some ways, then, Dylan sets up this conscious connection with the history that leads to this album. Dylan tells their stories from the third person perspective, but he also does so in the first person, fusing the narrative and lyric voices in a bardic mode and telling another version of history. Perhaps I stretch this assessment too far, but in any case, the adoption of these points of view then allow Dylan to become the seer of history as well as a participant in it. He stands outside of it to offer commentary or to adopt a quasi-Biblical prophetic tone. And, of course, this dual vision allows him to indulge yet again in putting on the guise of the outlaws and scallywags he sings about without facing any of their consequences. That works through most of the tracks: he ends them with a summation of what one should or shouldn’t do: “follow no man’s code” or “so when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’/help him with his load.” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” however, breaks this pattern.
The speaker dreams of seeing the saint ‘alive as you or me” entering a slave market, searching for souls and appealing to “ gifted kings and queens,” but no one answers. The vision ends with the speaker taking on the role of the Vandals who put the historical Augustine to death (however tangentially that invasion was connected). He wakes “alone and terrified” and his only reaction is to go to a window “put [his] fingers to the glass/and bow [his] head and [cry].” The reality beyond the dream, the boundaries of time, the continually present past, and the dream itself collide in this song. Dylan, the speaker, is haunted by what has come before, and here cannot shake off that these visions of the past, however they are conjured, assembled and told. These tellings and retellings, the singer’s ability to put on the past and blithely doff it do purchase different things, and in this case, the line between the singers ability and the actual lived reality are as thin and transparent as the glass that separates the dreamer from the outside world. But, the glass is a barrier nonetheless. He isn’t the persecutors nor is he the saint. But, he somehow, through this voice, is implicated in Augustine’s death and pointedly feels those effects because of his role in the dream. Like Augustine’s “fiery breath,” the retelling of the past, the revisiting of the familiar from whatever perspectives we choose to inhabit is quickening, dangerous, re-creative.