Let’s travel back in time, shall we? For my sixteenth birthday my best friend surprised me with a gift. Unwrapped, the way he had stolen it from the discount music store off route 55 was a copy of ‘John Wesley Harding’. Needless to say, I rushed to put it in and my first thought; “What the hell is this garbage?”
That album sat for over a decade, twelve years as I remember it. When it went back in the stereo, my first thought, brilliant. My time on the planet, my triumphs, failed loves and falls had brought a more mature ear to listen this time. Only later did I learn it was my father’s favorite Dylan album and how partial he was even to the cover. An album cover filled with characters much like the album.
The album itself has the landlord, the drifter, a wicked messenger, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and St. Augustine. Enticing right? Sounds much like a mystery board game, pieces shaped to reflect the characters. “I choose Frankie Lee in the saloon with the pistol!” Quite a bit of narrative characters to work with for the content of an EP. Many a brush stroke for this twelve song release.
An album of characters and narratives. Straight forward lyrics, much unlike the previous three albums and their word gumbo as it were. “The first ever Christian rock album”, to paraphrase, as the bard labeled it, though I’ve never quite grasped that concept. To begin, the first song sampled on the 1967 release is ‘John Wesley Harding’. Yes it’s misspelled on the cover but none the less a song about a folk-hero-outlaw. A man who claimed to have killed forty seven though the government said only twenty five. I personally am certain he must have snuck a few in there.
What you get from track one is the initial sonic taste of what is to follow. A bouncing baseline and drums which shuffle about to the tempo’s calling. A country album to be followed in his career by a pure country album. This the first public step Dylan took in this direction.
From ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’, about an apostle, visions and illusions towards Christ to ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Dylan spans time and topic. ‘Watchtower’ an epic barrage of lyrics describing the rich plundering the proletariat. Yes, ‘Watchtower’ and no Jimi Hendrix did not write it though he rushed to learn it on the day he heard the song, later recording it to a machine gun scream of a track.
Moving on, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, is told as childlike tale with morality sewed in a cautionary suggestions, “one should never be where one does not belong”. Offered a role of money to help his travels by Priest, does Franky ever bite of the fruit? The listener never knows. ‘Dear Landlord’ pleads, “if you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you” and is one of my all time favorites though I wish it had just one more verse. I guess I wish it just wouldn’t end, much like summer love.
‘Wicked Messenger’ eludes to a false like prophet and is a great example of the shuffling drum and bouncing base I first started chatting about. The remaining two tracks, ‘Down Along the Cove’ and ‘I’ll be Your Baby Tonight’ are love songs that swing. They hem up the fact that yes, this is a country album; buttoning up the album in a good timing jaunt.
Pop in the music to this monochromatic album cover in and savor the sound, the loss of enigmatic lyrics, songs which are more readily available for comprehension. If you’re like me at all the down home swing and sound of this album will bring many years of pleasure. Parental Warning: Keep Away From Teenagers (apparently) and enjoy.
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The lyrics of ?I pity the poor immigrant? sets you off on the wrong foot, as you might expect compassion from the singer, but Dylan depicts the immigrant who first ?tramples through the mud? and next ?builds his town with blood? then ?Who falls in love with wealth itself? and ultimately ? turns his back on me?.