@BrentSirota had an epic series of tweets yesterday about Bob Dylan and John Wesley Harding. I pieced them together so I could read them in full and thought I’d place them here in case others are interested in reading them too.
In many ways, the storytelling on Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” draws more on the “old, weird America” than The Basement Tapes. The narrative structure is reminiscent of 1) the Old Testament and 2) the English ballad tradition. Not so much in content but in form.
Like the Old Testament, the songs on John Wesley Harding are (to use Erich Auerbach’s phrase) “fraught with background.” They are uncanny. Songs like “As I Went Out One Morning” and “Frankie Lee & Judas Priest” are wrought with a weird, dread & uncertainty. I took her by the hand/She took me by the arm/I knew that very instant/She meant to do me harm … The circumstances of these encounters on “John Wesley Harding” remain unsaid, but therein lies the profound unease. Remind me of weird Old Testament moments like the sacrifice of Isaac or “the bridegroom of blood” where background exudes a kind of horror. The whole tone of John Wesley Harding is set by this refusal to spell things out. As in the economical storytelling of English ballads or OT. The neighbor boy in “Judas Priest” mutters underneath his breath: “NOTHING IS REVEALED.” That’s the key to the album.
That is the ambivalence of all revelation: it both discloses some higher truth while shrouding truth in mystery & obscurity. God reveals, but he never just comes out and says it. What is wonderful about “John Wesley Harding” is the transposition of a narrative style from Scripture and English folk music to the American West.
On “John Wesley Harding” it is the American frontier that is rendered a hallucinatory sacred landscape. That is the heart of the “old, weird America,” the possibility and terror of a sacred nation. In the end, what is more terrifying than the possibility that God is paying attention.
The sense of the Basement Tapes is immersive and self-negating: getting lost in the old, weird America. In the Basement Tapes Dylan & the Band lose their own voices amidst those of the past: the race & hillbilly records, gospel, finger-pointing. Those seemingly born of the same moment, John Wesley Harding doesn’t sound like this at all. It is removed.
Dylan populates the album w/ archetypes: the Joker, the Thief, Drifter, the Lonesome Hobo, the Wicked Messenger. And sets them on archetypal American landscapes: the courtroom, the assembly hall, the plotted plain. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” is something like an American Tarot deck.
The first two songs allude to two historical figures: John Wesley the evangelist and Thomas Paine the revolutionary. The American mythology of “John Wesley Harding” stands between the Revolution & the Great Awakening. The State and the Church.
And of course, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” remains one the weirdest and most enigmatic songs ever set down. A cowboy song that turns into a strange morality play that turns into a kind of descent to the underworld. Judas Priest goes from friend to vaguely Satanic figure (it’s in the name) to a kind of psychopomp. Frankie Lee’s life ends raving in the ecstatic rush into the “home across the road” he mistakes for paradise.
And we could go on & on (people have, I suppose) about the fall of Babylon narrative that is “All Along the Watchtower” Another apocalypse. The thief tells us: “The hour is getting late.” 1 Thessalonians tells us “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:2-4)
And then “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” which takes an old labor song about Joe Hill and turns into a meditation on martyrdom. (Even though, of course, St. Augustine wasn’t martyred.)
And Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” belongs in the American psalter, should they ever get around to compiling one. Narrator of “Dear Landlord” comes to terms with the “Landlord” with the words: “If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.”
In many ways, “John Wesley Harding” does in grand scale what “Desolation Row” only did in miniature: compose an American mythology.