CD Review of John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan

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John Wesley Harding
starstarstarstarno star Label: Columbia
Released: 1967
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For Dylan, 1967 was a relatively quiet year. He planned it that way, more or less, coming back from his motorcycle accident but also because everyone else that was releasing an album at the time was doing so in as high-profile a manner as possible. Sgt. Pepper and the rest ushered in the day of album sleeves and the music contained within as “art” – not that it had never been before that – but for some reason the history books say we should all look back upon that year as the first time X amount of people started doing that and behaving in such a way as to take rock music seriously, man. It was really just a bunch of sociological bullshit, but at the time it was way deep.

Dylan undoubtedly sensed this himself, having gone through the motions and transformed himself from popular “folk/protest singer” to something the folk purists didn’t want to be bothered with. But you know, electric guitars are fucking scary. It must have made the folkies shit their socks when Bringing it All Back Home came out. And we all know the death knell that Bob rang for the whole “movement” at the time with Highway 61 Revisited. He had been watching the Beatles himself and noted what was happening on the radio, and so he tailored his own messages for wider acceptance. It was calculated, but most importantly, it was honest to both Dylan and his audience. For what it’s worth, “Like a Rolling Stone” still kicks every musical fiber of Sgt. Pepper into a dust cloud. The Beatles made the mistake of trying to follow the Beach Boys while Dylan was rewriting the books the whole time.

When Blonde on Blonde arrived, it was more than just a “Statement.” In fact, it wasn’t that at all. It was just Dylan doing his thing the way he wanted without pretense or predictability. Where the hell did the likes of “Visions of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Obviously 5 Believers” even come from? He fucking parodied Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” on “4th Time Around” and flat out made his point clearly on “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” So that’s what he did. Even if there was no motorcycle accident, he would have done that.

So he recuperates and heads to Nashville and records the quiet and stirring John Wesley Harding. It’s acoustic and it’s a step away from the previous three albums, yet it’s not a step back to the likes of The Other Side of Bob Dylan. Those days were still long gone and anyone who was still clinging to the notion that they’d return was simply fooling themselves. This was a Dylan of yet another new sort, wringing out Old Testament-like epiphanies from beneath the rustic rural trappings. Hence “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” This was a hushed protest with Dylan keeping all things realistic and not worrying about whether or not people would follow.

He didn’t need them to, anyway. He decided that no singles should be pulled from the LP. And when Hendrix took “All Along the Watchtower” and did his thing with it, everyone was able to gawk and point while Dylan went about humbly having given history another gem. Yet he was also keeping with his character sketches, as on the title track, and remaining topical as ever on “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and “Dear Landlord.” This stuff didn’t need to be hyped on the A.M. It was simply there as part of the atmosphere, and if you wanted to tune in, you knew where to find Bob.

He grooved on “Down Along the Cove,” but for the most part John Wesley Harding was a simple statement, a palate cleanser for everything else that was out there at the time. While others were busy having their acid revelations, Dylan was still off cultivating his own cerebral trips from the land. He’d continue to mystify, sticking in Nashville and crooning unlike anyone had heard him before on Nashville Skyline and then confounding his most ardent fans with Self Portrait. Yet the fact of the matter has always been that Dylan is the one in control. He never needed anyone’s “permission” or a rhyme or reason to do what he wanted to do. He just did it. On John Wesley Harding he did it all over again, entirely new.

~Jason Thompson