You think you’ll stick with folk-rock or are you going on into more writing? I don’t play folk Rock. What would you call your music? I’d call it “there must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the thief there’s too much confusion I can’t get no relief” So there are some novels some trilogies in fact with less actual content than Bob Dylan’s ”All along the watchtower” it’s really astonishing what Dylan achieves in 12 lines 130 words and two and a half minutes. I don’t think I can explain the song definitively I don’t think anyone could do that with Dylan But there’s a lot here to explore.
And the first thing to note is exactly when and where all along the watchtower fits in Dylan’s career, the song is the fourth on his1967 album, John Wesley Harding coming after two of his most famous and most celebrated records Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde Dylan had already gone electric already repudiated much of the political significance he had in his first years and alienated a lot of his folk music following in the process His lyrics in those albums were lyrics of a man possessed shot through with some magic spirit singing gorgeously beautiful Epics in a stream of illusions and vignettes for this reason John Wesley Harding can only come as a shock It’s totally spare instrumentation mostly guitar bass and drums under vocals and Harmonica and largely two to three-minute songs strike a bold contrast not only to his previous albums, but to the maximalist psychedelic feeling of1967 the same year that the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts club band which by the way Dylan called quote very indulgent
Despite this Dylan’s eighth album was universally praised and rightly, so it’s among the tightest work he’s ever released both conceptually than the themes found in the 12 song cycle and lyrically, there’s no line that you can stick your finger through. He said in 1968. There’s no hole in any of the stanzas there’s no blank filler each line has something in all along the watchtower there are exactly twelve lines a parable framed as a conversation between two archetypes a joker and a thief the joker speaks first looking for a way [out] of here though we don’t quite know where here is then complaining that businessmen drink his wine plowman dig his earth while neither of them knows what those things are worth the thief responds saying that there’s no reason to get excited those people may feel that life is a joke but we know better because we’ve been through that already the story then pulls back to a watchtower where there is some kind of commotion as watchmen notice two Riders approaching in the cold distance the final quatrain is a little bit jarring.
It’s almost as if it’s misplaced in time it’s been suggested in fact that the last lines are actually chronologically the first in the story and by doing this Dylan gives the song a kind of endless circular feel the story always rapping around to the start again emphasizing just how futile the Joker’s first comment is there must be some way out of hereof course it’s unclear whether the two riders spotted from the watchtower are the Joker and the thief or whether the joker and the thief spot them or some other configuration and for that matter, it’s worth questioning who exactly these two figures are some think that the Joker is Dylan while the thief is Elvis who stole African-American music for white pop culture. Others see the two figures as two sides of Dylan’s own personality before and after the horrible motorcycle accident that in many ways generated this new style of music still others see the joker as Jesus in conversation with one of the thieves that were crucified alongside him making biblical connections, isn’t that far-fetched?
There are some 70 biblical allusions in John Wesley Harding all told and those close to Dylan remember him repeatedly consulting a large version of the King James Bible at his home in WoodstockSeveral people have noted the similarities between this song and a passage from the book of Isaiah Chapter 21 to be exact it’s a passage that prophesies the fall of Babylon and the Jews return from exile to Jerusalem.
Dylan spent much of his early career fighting off the label of prophet it’s a responsibility he felt was thrust on him illegitimately, but here he seems to accept the role laying down an apprehensive-apocalyptic scenario as if to say ”You want a prophecy? Okay? I’ll give you a prophecy”, but it comes at a price the price isMistery and Entrapment a prophecy the meaning of which is forever out of reach he casts himself in the role of Joker, thief, narrator, Jesus, and prophet all simultaneously removing any anchoring personal presence like you might find in his previous work by the end the audience is left in as much fearful anticipation of what’s to come as the reader of yates’s second coming as a great beast?
Impossible to fathom slouches toward Bethlehem to be born where this gets really compelling for me though is in the actual music a lot of people prefer Jimi Hendrix’s version of this song and obviously it’s incredibly fantastic but for me, the Sonic quality of Dylan’s original fits perfectly with this narrative at the heart of the song is a driving guitar and bass chord progression which one it’s repeated a few dozen times locks you into a hypnotic momentum.
Onto this is added Dylan’s call-and-response lyrics with each line comprising two parts that swing pendulum-like back and forth in his singing never varying outside of a narrow lane of pitch more overtones of being trapped the high-pitched relentlessness of the harmonica interludes just fray the nerves adding to the sense of apprehension and foreboding that the song is trying to create in us “All along the Watchtowerprinces kept the view” Dylan is conversing here with two of his favorite musical Genres.
The song is technically a folk ballad albeit a short one. It’s a story told as a conversation that Aims to Convey a message but the fingerprints of the blues are everywhere on the song namely one of Dylan’s Heroes Robert Johnson who the legend has it sold his soul to the devil for a musical genius like Dylan.
Johnson told evocative stories with dark undertones on songs with simple repetitive structures think that’s the key to the power of this song all along the watchtower delivers its prophecy of impending doom on to a steady and unfaltering foundation something that points backward to both his roots in folk and to the black roots of Rock and roll it was Bob Dylan’s great gift that he could take something that orient’s itself toward the past and push himself and his music forward it’s the music that makes all along the watchtower a cryptic prophecy that you can’t escape something that teases you in and always at the end begins here must be some [way] out of here.