Shakespeare in the Alley

Show ten --the john wesley harding album




This show focuses entirely on one album,  moving through the album analyzing each song as a step in the progression from the outlaw figure of John Wesley Harding to the totally moderate family man who says, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  This show builds on show three where the  joker/thief dichotomy is introduced as well as the ballad show which covers several songs on the album.


The Outlaw’s Metamorphosis: An Analysis of John Wesley Harding



Welcome back to the series, folks.  This week’s show fulfills a promise made several shows back to examine the whole of the John Wesley Harding album released in late 1967. It’s the most tightly written, the most intentional, in many ways the most perfect of Dylan albums.  It’s a pivotal album, providing the transition from the outlaw figure of the mid-sixties to the quiet, moderate, family man of the late sixties and early seventies.  It’s the second of the great transition albums.  The first one, Bringing It All Back Home, released in January 1965, embodies the transition from lone performer with acoustic guitar and harmonic to the strident rebel with electric guitar and band.  After his motorcycle accident Dylan took over a year off and when he re-emerged into the public eye with a new album the shock was just as great as with the first transition.  Country Joe McDonald sums up the negative response which many felt:

I don't know where the real Bob Dylan went, but I don't believe this one…. I don't know what happened to him, but something did and he disappeared.  He  stopped being a rebel and started being a nice guy, a family man.21


It was true, of course.  The strident voice of the rebel who ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, the cry of the outcast who is lost in the rain in Juarez, the taunting outlaw with his dark sunglasses who just might tell you the truth—those were the trademarks which had come to identify the mid-sixties Dylan.    But it’s a role which is bound to be tiring.  Even at the beginning Dylan expressed the difficulty with it:


               Ain't it hard to stumble

               And land in some funny lagoon?

               Ain't it hard to stumble

               And land in some muddy lagoon?

               Especially when it's nine below zero

               And three o'clock in the afternoon.


               Ain't gonna hang no picture,

               Ain't gonna hang no picture frame.

               Ain't gonna hang no picture,

               Ain't gonna hang no picture frame.

               Well, I might look like Robert Ford

               But I feel just like a Jesse James.


Jesse James was shot down by the man he thought was a friend, Robert  Ford.  So it shouldn’t be surprising when we see, the new Dylan emerge.  The radical transformation from outlaw to family man is the subject of  the album conceived, written, and recorded in the months when Dylan went into seclusion with his growing family, best summarized by the final verse in “Sign on the Window” on the New Morning album:


               Build me a cabin in Utah,

               Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout,

               Have a bunch of kids who call me "Pa,"

               That must be what it's all about,

               That must be what it's all about.


That period of seclusion was made possible by Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident.  It provided a reason, or at least an excuse to take a break.  The year and a half retreat allowed time for a re-evaluation, time to think over the whirlwind changes of the previous eighteen months during which Dylan had changed in the public eye from a lauded "folk singer" to a world-famous rock star.  Between the release of Bringing It All Back Home in January, 1965 and Blonde on Blonde in May, 1966 Dylan published and recorded about fifty songs, most of them released on three monumental albums, wrote a book of prose poems, and toured America, England, Europe and finally the world.  He singed a contract with Macmillan for the book (before writing it) and his Columbia recording contract was about to expire, leaving him free to negotiate.  And he got married—secretly.  On every front, personal, business, and artistic, important changes were taking place.  The evaluation which followed this whirlwind of change led Dylan to replace the outlaw mask with the mask of the moderate man, the basis for a new personal and artistic identity.  The internal process of this rebirth is the subject of John Wesley Harding.


            The key to the album, according to the liner notes, is Frank.  The story of "The Three Kings" is one of Dylan's mythic-surrealistic narratives.  It is closest to parable in genre, drawing on the Bible not only for Christ allusions (as when we are told that Frank was “dishing himself out” but for the entrance of the three kings seeking the answer, echoing the three wise men, yet they act more like the three stooges and they are not bearing gifts.  Let me share the entire parable with you now in the form of radio drama.


As metaphor for Dylan's gyrations during the frantic months between Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde this is perfect.  During his tour of England documented in Don’t Look Back he carries a hugh indurstrial light bulb, telling reporters who ask what advice he has, “Always keep a cool head and carry a lightbulb.”   The parable gives us a description of  the outlaw’s fruitless quest for the madonna, of the outcast’s longing for Mr. Tambourine man to deliver him from the ancient empty street, of the hobo’s desperation when he’s lost in the rain in Juarez and its Eastertime too, in a few simple strokes, climaxing with this:  "he took a deep breath, moaned and punched his fist through the plate-glass window"? 


"Sign on the window says 'Lonely'," he sings on the New Morning album.   The darkling glass from Paul's famous love chapter in his first letter to the Corinthians is what Dylan seeks to break through, to achieve that ideal vision, that union with Johanna herself.  But is that enough for the kings?  He suggests, but stops short of, self-sacrifice.  Martyrdom is not the answer.

            Mysteriously, each of the three kings get their wish;  Frank has been all things to all men.  His wife, Vera (Latin for ‘truth’) asks, "Why didn't you just tell them you were a moderate man and leave it at that instead of goosing yourself all over the room?"  Frank can only reply, "Patience, Vera."  He has escaped, but he still has Vera's question to mull over.  Should he, perhaps, just tell them that he is a moderate man?


            If "The Three Kings" is a parable about Dylan's mid-sixties outlaw mask, the album is analysis of his conversion to moderation.   The songs trace, step by step, the process of that conversion.  The album opens with a condensed version of the honest outlaw ballad.  John Wesley Harding combines the virtues of Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Hardy.2 


               John Wesley Harding

               Was a friend to the poor,

               He trav'led with a gun in ev'ry hand.

               All along this countryside,

               He opened a many a door,

               But he was never known

               To hurt a honest man.


Like Robin Hood and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” John Wesley Harding is a friend to the poor and never hurt an honest man.  Dylan condenses the myth into three short verses, where earlier versions took 10, 20, sometimes 30 verses.

               'Twas down in Chaynee County,

               A time they talk about,

               With his lady by his side

               He took a stand.

               And soon the situation there

               Was all but straightened out,

               For he was always known

               To lend a helping hand.


Yes, the outlaw always has his lady and stands up for her and straighens out the situation.  And thus there is much talk about him.  Indeed, he becomes famous, so that his name will resound.

               All across the telegraph

               His name it did resound,

               But no charge held against him

               Could they prove.

               And there was no man around

               Who could track or chain him down,

               He was never known

               To make a foolish move.


The song portrays an idealized image, the positive side, the attractive silhouette of Dylan's public outlaw image, as it were.  Although he poses a threat with a "gun in every hand" he never harms "an honest man."  Verse two portrays his chivalry and sexual prowess, verse three his illusiveness and skill at staying free of chains or, as Stephan Daedalus calls them in Portrait of the Artist, nets.  In its compression and its theme as well as its quiet country music, this opening song sets the tone for the album, the tone of moderation and control.  Compared to Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," a classic outlaw ballad itself based on the folk myth of the honest outlaw, Dylan's ballad is certainly moderate.  Guthrie's song is twelve verses long, beginning with Floyd's encounter with a "rude" deputy, his escape to the "trees and timbers," his protection by and of the Oklahoma farmers, his charity for those on relief, and ending with two verses which have become legend:



As through this world I ramble

I've seen lots of funny men,

Some'll rob you with a six-gun

Others with a fountain pen.


As through this life you travel,

As through this life you roam,

You won't ever see an outlaw

Drive a family from their home.


Dylan’s ballad is nothing like Guthrie’s because, as Dylan knows, the times have changed.  Guthrie's pose of the uneducated Okie can no longer reach the people in a time of mass-media.  Dylan commented on his kind of ballad in an interview3 done six months after the release of John Wesley Harding:


The uses of the ballad have changed.  When they were singing years ago, it would be as entertainment. . . a fellow could sit down and sing a song for a half hour, and everybody could listen, and you could form opinions.  You'd be waiting to see how it ended, what happened to this person or that person.  It would be like going to a movie.  But now we have movies, so why does someone want to sit around for a half hour listening to a ballad?

The interviewer then asks plainly, “Then most of the songs on John Wesley Harding, you don't consider as ballads.”


Well, I do, but not in the traditional sense.  I haven't fulfilled the balladeer's job.  A balladeer can sit down and sing three ballads for an hour and a half.  See, on the album, you have to think about it after you hear it, that's what takes up the time, but with a ballad, you don't necessarily have to think about it after you hear it, it can all unfold to you.  These melodies on the John Wesley Harding album lack this traditional sense of time.

Ballads, yes, but in a transformed state appropriate to our new mass-media situation.  And this opening ballad of the honest outlaw is followed by another which opens with a traditional line:




It is clear by the time of this second song on the album, "As I Went Out One Morning," that the album will be highly traditional in its roots and distinctively American, yet highly mystereous. We find the speaker in this song is one who wishes to “breath the air around Tom Paine’s.”  Tom Paine, as one of the chief proponents of “the rights of man” and a free America, is associated with the ideas on which American democracy are founded.  What we see is an encounter between the speaker and the fair damsel roaming in Tom Paine’s field—but she is in chains.


The fair damsel has not turned out as Tom Paine would have liked, obviously.  He has to command her to let go her grip and then apologize.  We now have the first two stages in the progress of this album.  In “John  Wesley Harding” Dylan portrays mythic honest outlaw which provided the Dylan of the mid-sixties with his mask, his artistic identity.  In “As I Went Out One Morning” he seeks to help America, “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains,” but instead of taking his offered hand she takes him by the arm, trying to turn him into what she wants him to be.  His escape from her grip comes at the command of Tom Paine, the great voice of American independence.



            The third song, like the two before, has its source in traditional American music, thus allowing Dylan to evoke the American experience while at the same time commenting upon it.  "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" has the speaker himself as one of the persecutors of the martyred St. Augustine, or at least he dreams that he is.  The introduction of this figure out of early Christian history calls attention the fact that the outlaw from the first song is himself named after a famous Christian figure:  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.  Along with Christ imagery, there is more than enough evidence to reveal that the conversion from outlaw to moderate man is spiritual in nature.  The album might be called a radical examination of the American Judeo-Christian tradition.



            Just as "As I Went Out One Morning" repeats the chain image from the opening song so this song repeats the glass image from the liner parable.  In this context it is more clearly used in the biblical sense to suggest the illusory nature of our perception in this world.  The dreamer responds with the traditional religious gesture:  "I put my fingers against the glass/And bowed my head and cried."  The song presents the next step in the progression toward moderation, the recognition of guilt coupled with the recognition that one must accept responsibility for self, that the guilt must be born, not transferred to someone else.  At the heart of the song is St. Augustine's paradoxical "sad complaint":


                                    "No martyr is among ye now

                                    Whom ye can call your own,

                                    So go your way accordingly

                                    But know you're not alone."

Dylan presents this complex paradox with such understatement that one easily passes over it.  The martyr is one who through his death continues as a presence which inspires and overcomes the sense of separation and aloneness which divides people.  Jesus' resurrection is the ultimate mythic expression of the martyr's continuing presence among his followers, but at the heart of this myth is the necessity of one man's sacrifice to overcome human aloneness.  This mythic pattern requires the leader's death so that he can be idealized to transcend the human level.7  Dylan's saint asks the "gifted kings and queens" to transcend instead their own need for a martyr, to accept the humanness of their leaders and thus the divinity of us all.  As Christ asked that the cup pass from him, so Frank, in the liner parable, asks the three kings, "Far enough?"  By not dying in the motorcycle accident, Dylan has refused the self-sacrifice of a martyr, refused to be either Jesus Christ or James Dean,8 leaving us without a martyr to idealize, asking us instead to go our way "accordingly" and face the sense of separation by accepting our common human condition.  The dreamer, however, is unable or unwilling to act "accordingly"; for him St. Augustine must be "put. . . out to death."  The cover emotion9 of anger which he feels in the dream is revealed as fear in the final lines of the poem:


                                    Oh, I awoke in anger

                                    So alone and terrified,

                                    I put my fingers against the glass

                                    And bowed my head and cried.



The guilt, fear, confusion and sense of being cut off with which the dreamer awakes is the beginning point of the album's next song, one of his best known as well as most seminal.


"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.

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."


"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."



            Certain songs are so central to a poet's work that they recur again and again within any commentary about the poet.  Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Arnold's "Dover Beach," Eliot's "The Waste Land," Whitman's "Song of Myself," Ginsberg's "Howl," Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."  In an earlier show I  traced the alternation of the two voices, the joker and the thief, throughout the four decades of Dylan’s work.  This album takes us through the transition, the metamorphsis of the joker into the thief, the outlaw into the moderate man.

            The final verse of "All Along the Watchtower" creates an ambiguous scene which evokes strong feelings of fear and anxiety but a pleasure at hearing these emotions given expression.  Paul Williams comments on the tension not only in this song but throughout the album: 


              It has to do with everything on this album's being at least relatively accessible, and at the same time so damn intentional; so any time you happen to say to yourself, "I wonder why he did that," you really feel obligated to work at figuring it out.  'Cause you know he did it on purpose….  "All Along the Watchtower"—a nice song.  But certain minor questions arise.  Why does it end "two riders were approaching. . . ."?  Why does the phrase "all along the watchtower" seem somehow out of place?  Why is "There must be some way out of here" so incredibly successfully claustrophobic?  Why are we drawn to "so let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late?"  . . . . with these subjective questions, I would never have discovered the most  delightful aspect of the song.  Its ends have been twisted, and taped together.  In another universe, Dylan would begin:  "All along the watchtower, princes kept the view. . . Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl."  The second and third verses would then be conversation between the two riders, the Joker and the Thief; and "Let us not talk falsely now" would close the song with comfort.

                        But only in this universe, with the song dissatisfying because  the ends seems to be in the middle of things, and the beginning stuck in there on the third verse, only in this world can the real claustrophobia of the Joker come through to us all.  Because indeed, "There must be some way out of here"—what more natural reaction, caught on a moebius strip?13

This seems accurate in both specifics and generalities.  The songs are "relatively accessible";  there are no surrealistic images of ragmen drawing circles up and down the block.  But the compression and intentionality encourages a close analysis which reveals a great deal of unity.  The Christ images in the parable of the three kings, for example, is continued in "All Along the Watchtower" in the joker's line, "Business men they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth."  If the joker, conversing with a thief is a Christ-figure then the scene must be Golgotha and the opening line, “There must be some way out of here,” becomes  a variation of "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  As in "St. Augustine," however, martyrdom is rejected and the way of moderation proposed:  “No reason to get excited,” the thief says.  Only those who think of life as a joke will expect the joker to play the martyr's part to the end.

            The intentionality of the song is clear in the construction of the song.  Just as the first two verses contrast the joker's confusion to the thief's calm, so the last verse contrasts inside and outside the watchtower:


            All along the watchtower, princes kept  the view

            While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too.

            Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,

            Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.


Inside the watchtower there is an attempt being made to ward off the indefinite threat of the wildcat and the wind.  The princes, those in charge, "kept the view," a phrase which illustrates Dylan's ability to combine simple words to create an ambiguous image.  It might mean that they "kept the watch" as one would expect in a watchtower; but while "watch" refers to the act of watching, "view" refers to what is seen out there, beyond the watchtower.  To "keep the view" would be to function with a stagnant vision of reality.  Following that is the allusion to T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "all the women came and went" echoes, in the past tense, Eliot’s line, “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo.”  The suggestions is that the princes are, like Prufruck, ineffectual and anxious, not Prince Hamlets, and not willing or able to ask the overwhelming question.

            At the end of his essay "Language," Herman Hesse has a comment about people and artists which illuminates this poem, drawing its central image from the same passage in Isaiah (chapter 21, verses 5-7) that Dylan seems to allude to:

The average citizen has set a watchman between himself and his soul, a consciousness, a morality, a security police, and he recognizes nothing that comes directly form that abyss of the soul before it has been given that watchman's stamp of approval.  The artist's constant distrust, however, is not directed against the region of the soul but precisely against that border watchman's authority;  the artist secretly comes and goes between this side and that, between the conscious and the unconscious, as though at home in both houses [italics mine]. 14

The end-beginning reversal which Williams points out is complemented by the inside-outside reversal here revealed: the last two lines depict that "abyss of the soul" inside us all.  Dylan is examining the spiritual landscape in America.


            Knowing this is helpful in approaching the next song, the rather unusual "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest."  With its twenty-two ballad stanzas, this song, actually a spoken poem with a simple harmonic progression played behind it, presents Frankie Lee's relationship to Judas Priest.  Like the joker, Frankie Lee is confused.  He has lost his orientation, his sense of direction, his sense of values, his sense of identity.


               Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,

               They were the best of friends.

               So when Frankie Lee needed money one day,

               Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens

               And placed them on a footstool

               Just above the plotted plain,

               Sayin', "Take your pick, Frankie Boy,

               My loss will be your gain."


               Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down

               And put his fingers to his chin,

               But with the cold eyes of Judas on him,

               His head began to spin.

               "Would ya please not stare at me like that," he said,

               "It's just my foolish pride,

               But sometimes a man must be alone

               And this is no place to hide."


               Well, Judas, he just winked and said,

               "All right, I'll leave you here,

               But you'd better hurry up and choose

               Which of those bills you want,

               Before they all disappear."

               "I'm gonna start my pickin' right now,

               Just tell me where you'll be."


               Judas pointed down the road

               And said, "Eternity!"

               "Eternity?" said Frankie Lee,

               With a voice as cold as ice.

               "That's right," said Judas Priest, "Eternity,

               Though you might call it 'Paradise.'"


 He is an everymodernman, like Charlie Chaplin or Charlie Brown, plagued by feelings of insignificance.  He has no father; for him God is dead and eternity something he does not discuss.  Judas Priest, unlike the thief, offers not spiritual but material comfort, thus proving to be a seducer, like the fair damsel in chains, though better disguised than she.  He offers Frankie Lee money which poses a moral crisis ("Would you please not stare at me. . .") , followed by guilt feelings which lead him to drop everything and run when a "passing stranger" informs him that Judas is "down the road stranded in a house."  He finds a Judas Priest who now procures other comforts and in his weakness Frankie turns easily from making money to making women, from, as it were, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to the Playboy Ethic and the Flesh of Sensualism.


             Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked,

               He dropped ev'rything and ran

               Until he came up to the spot

               Where Judas Priest did stand.

               "What kind of house is this," he said,

               "Where I have come to roam?"

               "It's not a house," said Judas Priest,

               "It's not a house . . . it's a home."


               Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled,

               He soon lost all control

               Over ev'rything which he had made

               While the mission bells did toll.

               He just stood there staring

               At that big house as bright as any sun,

               With four and twenty windows

               And a woman's face in ev'ry one.


               Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee

               With a soulful, bounding leap,

               And, foaming at the mouth,

               He began to make his midnight creep.

               For sixteen nights and days he raved,

               But on the seventeenth he burst

               Into the arms of Judas Priest,

               Which is where he died of thirst.



            The parallel of Frankie Lee to Christ is suggested by the name of his betrayer and reinforced by various details, but poor Frankie lacks the inner resources to cope with "the modern situation."  When Frankie Lee dies of thirst in Judas' arms there is allusion not only to the thirsty Christ on the cross but to the everlasting water which the Son of God offered to the woman at the well.  Judas Priest does not have that to offer: he is a false priest.  Likewise, Frankie Lee is not a martyr but a victim.  The hour is late; we are in the latter days when there is no martyr among us and no revelation.



            The next song moves from the priest to the judge, from the church to the courtroom, an offers the alternative ending from that of Frankie Lee.  Like  "All Along the Watchtower," it opens with a cry for help:


               "Oh, help me in my weakness,"

               I heard the drifter say,

               As they carried him from the courtroom

               And were taking him away.

               "My trip hasn't been a pleasant one

               And my time it isn't long,

               And I still do not know

               What it was that I've done wrong."


               Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside,

               A tear came to his eye,

               "You fail to understand," he said,

               "Why must you even try?"

               Outside, the crowd was stirring,

               You could hear it from the door.

               Inside, the judge was stepping down,

               While the jury cried for more.


               "Oh, stop that cursed jury,"

               Cried the attendant and the nurse,

               "The trial was bad enough,

               But this is ten times worse."

               Just then a bolt of lightning

               Struck the courthouse out of shape,

               And while ev'rybody knelt to pray

               The drifter did escape


“The Drifter’s Escape” shows is alternative ending, the one which Dylan was lucky enough to get. 

The scene: the courtroom immediately following conviction of the drifter.  Each character seems to have a part to play which predetermines his lines:  the innocent prisoner cries, What have I done?  the crowd wants blood, the jury wants to exercise its power over human life again, the attendant and the nurse plead for mercy.  All of this role playing is emphasized by the fact that the central figure, the judge, has "cast his robe aside" and speaks not as "The Judge" but as a human being.  Within his role he has to hand down the sentence, but once he has stepped down he can sympathize, having seen the whole situation.  The striking finish reveals that while traditional Christian values may have waned, the primitive fear of God15 still exists.  Perhaps it is the recognition of weakness which distinguishes the drifter from Frankie Lee and thus allows for his miracuilous escape.  While Frankie Lee, tempted by both money and sex, dies of thirst, the drifter escapes thanks to heavenly intervention.


            This recognition of weakness, of not being in control, leads to the state of humility and meekness which the next song conveys.  It is a letter of supplication to one who is usually thought of as unresponsive:


               Dear landlord,

               Please don't put a price on my soul.

               My burden is heavy,

               My dreams are beyond control.

               When that steamboat whistle blows,

               I'm gonna give you all I got to give,

               And I do hope you receive it well,

               Dependin' on the way you feel that you live.


               Dear landlord,

               Please heed these words that I speak.

               I know you've suffered much,

               But in this you are not so unique.

               All of us, at times, we might work too hard

               To have it too fast and too much,

               And anyone can fill his life up

               With things he can see but he just cannot touch.


               Dear landlord,

               Please don't dismiss my case.

               I'm not about to argue,

               I'm not about to move to no other place.

               Now, each of us has his own special gift

               And you know this was meant to be true,

               And if you don't underestimate me,

               I won't underestimate you.


Each of the three verse opens with  "Dear Landlord,/Please. . .".  This song moves one step closer to the moderate man with its tone of  humility and Christian meekness.   The thief's comfort, “No reason to get excited,” has been heard and accepted before the larger perspective "outside in the distance."  It doesn’t accept the injustice of the sterotypical landlord but recognizes a common humanity and acknowledges that he too has "suffered much" and should not be judged.



            This "judge not" theme is more explicit in "I Am a Lonesome Hobo," whose speaker is the most humble of all outlaw figures. All of the pride and independence which makes wearomg the mask of the outlaw attractive is deflated by this picture:



               I am a lonesome hobo

               Without family or friends,

               Where another man's life might begin,

               That's exactly where mine ends.

               I have tried my hand at bribery,

               Blackmail and deceit,

               And I've served time for ev'rything

               'Cept beggin' on the street.


               Well, once I was rather prosperous,

               There was nothing I did lack.

               I had fourteen-karat gold in my mouth

               And silk upon my back.

               But I did not trust my brother,

               I carried him to blame,

               Which led me to my fatal doom,

               To wander off in shame.


“I am a Lonesome Hobo” is a quiet song is in the riches-to-rags tradition, perhaps best known in the sentimental country song "Satisfied Mind."  As throughout the album, there is an economy and precision of imagery:  "I had fourteen-karat gold in my mouth/And silk upon my back."  This is  combined with carefully chosen abstractions: "But I did not trust my brother,/I carried him to blame/Which led me. . ./To wander off in shame").  These have always been basic in Dylan's poetics.  And it closes with the annoucement of the hobo’s immenent departure and a warning:


               Kind ladies and kind gentlemen,

               Soon I will be gone,

               But let me just warn you all,

               Before I do pass on;

               Stay free from petty jealousies,

               Live by no man's code,

               And hold your judgment for yourself

               Lest you wind up on this road.


            “This road” which we are warned to avoid can be related to either the American theme or the spiritual theme which runs throughout the album, but a full view has to marry the two.  If the fair damsel in "As I Walked Out One Morning" is Lady Liberty who should be proclaiming the rights of man instead of walking in chains, her chains are not only political but spiritual.  If John Wesley Harding is the independent gun-slinging American hero he is also that perfect criminal, Christ. 



The song which most clearly relates these themes focuses on that evocative figure which is so central to American history, the immigrant. 



               I pity the poor immigrant

               Who wishes he would've stayed home,

               Who uses all his power to do evil

               But in the end is always left so alone.

               That man whom with his fingers cheats

               And who lies with ev'ry breath,

               Who passionately hates his life

               And likewise, fears his death.


Many of the traditional songs of this "Nation of Immigrants" are the cries of the "poor immigrant/Who wishes he would have stayed home," from the lament of the boy who came over with his grandfather on "The Sloop John B." to that of the southern boy gone north to work in "Detroit City."  But this song is not in the voice of the immigrant but one one who pities the poor immigrant, who does not judge but pities.  America becomes itself a metaphor for the life, the foreign country in which we all are uncomfortable yet unwilling to return whence we came.

               I pity the poor immigrant

               Whose strength is spent in vain,

               Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

               Whose tears are like rain,

               Who eats but is not satisfied,

               Who hears but does not see,

               Who falls in love with wealth itself

               And turns his back on me.


The closing verse repeats the image of shattering glass from the parable of the Three Kings which introduces the album and draws its language from the King James Bible:


               I pity the poor immigrant

               Who tramples through the mud,

               Who fills his mouth with laughing

               And who builds his town with blood,

               Whose visions in the final end

               Must shatter like the glass.

               I pity the poor immigrant

               When his gladness comes to pass.


The immigrant, like the hobo, is a variation of the outlaw revealing more of the flaws inherent in the mask Dylan wears up to this 1967 album, the mask which until then provided the basis for his artistic identity.  The album begins with the positive heroic profile in "John Wesley Harding."  As the angle changes new characteristics—naiveté, confusion, guilt—come to light.  Betrayal and miraculous escape lead to humility before authority (which is not the same as "respect" for authority.  Dylan is not reneging or recanting but widening his perspective, adding meekness and pity.  This leaves only the negative profile of the outlaw; the altruistic Dr. Jekyll has now turned into the demonic Mr. Hyde. 



The transformation is complete when John Wesley Harding turns into "The Wicked Messenger":



               There was a wicked messenger

               From Eli he did come,

               With a mind that multiplied

               The smallest matter.

               When questioned who had sent for him,

               He answered with his thumb,

               For his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter.


               He stayed behind the assembly hall,

               It was there he made his bed,

               Oftentimes he could be seen returning.

               Until one day he just appeared

               With a note in his hand which read,

               "The soles of my feet, I swear they're burning."


               Oh, the leaves began to fallin'

               And the seas began to part,

               And the people that confronted him were many.

               And he was told but these few words,

               Which opened up his heart,

               "If ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any."


Like “John Wesley Harding, “Wicked Messenger” presents a third person description of Dylan's public image and his artistic identity.  One has only to look back over commentary in the press to understand either of these seemingly contradictory views.  Ralph Gleason in 1966 called Dylan "the first poet of mass media."  When I wrote asking for the basis of the honorary doctorate which Princeton gave to Dylan, then sent a copy of Gleason’s column "Rhythm Section" in which he writes, "The poetry of Bob Dylan . . . is of such basic importance to an understanding. . . of the shift in attitudes and values of the New Generation, that someone ought to compile a book of quotations from Chairman Bob."  But Gleason is not alone.   Richard Goldstein wrote  “Today, he is Shakespeare and Judy Garland to my generation.  We trust what he tells us."            Others saw only the wicked messenger whose "tongue it could not speak but only Flatter."  Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out!, probably put it in the strongest terms:


            Song after song adds up to the same basic statement: Life is an absurd conglomeration of meaningless events capsuled into the unnatural vacuum created by birth and completed by death and to seek meaning or purpose in life is as unrewarding as it is pointless;  all your modern civilization does is further alienate man from his fellow man and from nature.  …With a candid and non-hypocritical eye it has shown us much of the absurdity and pretentiousness of modern-day idealism.  Unfortunately, it has not been able to replace its destroyed idols with anything but a void.


As we watch the replacement of the outlaw mask with that of the moderate man , or I should say listen to the poetic expression of it, we need to keep in mind that they are complementary, two sides of one coin, to use the analogy from the joker and thief show.  But this album is not about that, it’s about the removal of the outlaw mask and the putting on of the mask of the comforter, the lover, the thief. 



That comes to fulfillment in the final two songs.  The first of them is a simple as they get:

              DOWN ALONG THE COVE


               Down along the cove,

               I spied my true love comin' my way.

               Down along the cove,

               I spied my true love comin' my way.

               I say, "Lord, have mercy, mama,

               It sure is good to see you comin' today."


               Down along the cove,

               I spied my little bundle of joy.

               Down along the cove,

               I spied my little bundle of joy.

               She said, "Lord, have mercy, honey,

               I'm so glad you're my boy!"


               Down along the cove,

               We walked together hand in hand.

               Down along the cove,

               We walked together hand in hand.

               Ev'rybody watchin' us go by

               Knows we're in love, yes, and they understand.


"Down Along the Cove" is a lively up tempo love song in which the speaker "spied" not a fair damsel in chains but "my true love comin' my way."  It is a preview of the Nashville Skyline album, Dylan’s next, as it the last song, where the wicked messenger is prsented as the mockingbird, an apt image for the voice of the mid-sixties, not only because Dylan "mocks" the absurdities of our society in those songs but because, like the mockingbird, he steals his tunes from others and creates something entirely new and beautiful.  Even moreso than “Down Along the Cove,” the final song on the album, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," marks the removal of the mask of the outlaw and emergence of the moderate man.



               Close your eyes, close the door,

               You don't have to worry any more.

               I'll be your baby tonight.


               Shut the light, shut the shade,

               You don't have to be afraid.

               I'll be your baby tonight.


               Well, that mockingbird's gonna sail away,

               We're gonna forget it.

               That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon,

               But we're gonna let it,

               You won't regret it.


               Kick your shoes off, do not fear,

               Bring that bottle over here.

               I'll be your baby tonight.




But just as the mask of the outlaw has its negative side, that of the wicked messenger, so the mask of the moderate man is not without its tension.  The very title evokes the mutability theme so popular with the English Romantic poets, for that final qualifying word, “tonight,” elicits the question of another popular love song, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"  One of his most beautiful love songs on the Planet Waves album opens,

            Twilight on the frozen lake    

            A north wind about to break

            On footsteps in the snow

            'N silence down below.

Wilfred Mellers, the British musicologist, says that Dylan's work revolves around the central themes of freedom and responsibility, themes which correlate with the joker-thief or outlaw-moderate man dichotomy.  In "If Dogs Run Free," Mellers writes, "the balance between freedom and responsibility is no less delicate than the interaction of security and vulnerability in "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."19  The balance of these complementary qualities is called to our attention by the double entendre suggested in the last verse when the words "bottle" and "baby" are juxtaposed:  it is the fact that he is secure enough to be vulnerable that allows her the security of knowing he will be her baby for at least tonight.  This delicate balance can be maintained by the moderate man because he has traveled the outlaw's road of excess.  The two roads, moderation and excess, lead to different creative processes, however.  Dylan himself describe this shortly after the album was out:

…[T]he concepts are imbedded now whereas before that record I was just trying to see all of which I could do, trying to structure this and that.  Every record was more or less for impact.  … It was spontaneously brought out, all those seven record albums.  … Now, I like to think that I can do it, do it better, on my own terms, …  I used to get a good phrase or a verse and then have to carry it to write something off the top of the head and stick it in the middle, to lead this into that.  …  Now I can go from line to line, whereas yesterday it was from thought to thought....  On the new record, it's more concise.  Here I am not interested in taking up that much of anybody's time.20


The confession that some verses were written merely "to lead this into that" is a telling criticism of such songs as "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," with its powerful opening and closing verses and weak middle, especially verses four and five.  Certainly it does not apply to such major accomplishments as "It's Alright Ma" or "Hard Rain," but "Sad-Eyed Lady" is at best a monumental failure.  He goes on to discuss his changed relationship to the songs:

What I do know is that I put myself out of the songs.  I'm not in the songs anymore.  I'm just there singing them, and  I'm not personally connected with them.  I write them all  now at a different time than when I record them.  It used to be

if I would sing, I'd get a verse and go on and wait for it to come out as the music was there, and sure enough, something would come out, but in the end, I would be deluded in those songs.  Besides singing them, I'd be in there acting them out—just  pulling them off.  Now I have enough time to write the song and not think about being in it. 



The moderate man is much more in control.  He is not driven but rather the driver.  For while the songs clearly paint a picture of this transition in his artistic life, he doesn’t “put [himself] in the songs” the way he does in, say, “Desolation Row.”  This seems a contradiction, but it’s a paradox made clear by another artist who herself is a Dylan fan.

            Dylan perceived that his artistic identity as outlaw, his John Wesley Harding pose, shared in the central flaw of what Joyce Carol Oates calls "The Myth of the Isolated Artist."


The myth of the isolated artist is a very real one, and since individuals tend to believe the myths told about them, it is important for us to realize how difficult, and in some cases how destructive, this fantasy is. Because the writer is seen by his readers and critics as totally separate from his culture, as other, his attempts to establish a relationship with this culture are usually frustrated.


She instances Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and John Updike who have been encouraged by their critics in their tendencies toward nihilism and self-destruction.  The critic, like the audience, does not recognize his responsibility to participate in the understanding of reality, or rather the quest for that understanding which is the work of art; instead the work of art is seen as an entry in a contest to be judged.


But when the conception of 'self' is one of fiercely individualistic, private, and 'original' nature, the relationship between an author and his culture will always be misunderstood.


Dylan realized that to change his relationship to his audience that it was necessary to altar that image of 'self' as outlaw. 


            Dylan is an artist who is very conscious of creating a "self," an identity.  That’s what the name “Bob Dylan” indicates.   Our culture is one that maximizes isolation—we like to call it “independence,” We worships loneliness; Dylan,  calls us to give up our culturally imposed isolation and accept the metaphysical aloneness which is a condition of humanity.  Aloneness is not the same as loneliness, just as isolation is not uniqueness.  Loneliness is the failure to accept one's aloneness; isolation is refusal to accept one's dependence on others.  Dylan attempts to help us see these distinctions, distinctions which are at the core of the paradoxical realization that we are all alike and each unique.  Oates concludes,


In surrendering one's isolation, one does not surrender his own uniqueness; he only surrenders his isolation. . . . As long as the myth of separate and competitive "selves" endures, we will have a society obsessed with adolescent ideas of being superior, of conquering, of destroying. . . .   Creative work, like scientific work, should be greeted as a communal effort— an attempt by an individual to give voice to many voices, an attempt to synthesize and explore and analyze.  All the books published under my name …are meant to be hypothetical and exploratory, inviting responses that are not simple, thalamic praise/abuse, but some demonstration that there is an audience that participates in the creation of art.  Many myths must be exposed and relegated to the past, but the myth of the "isolated self" will be most difficult to destroy.26


Dylan, in creating the moderate man identity, is attempting to destroy this myth of the isolated self and to create a new relationship to his audience.  In "Dirge" he sings,


There are those who worship loneliness,

I'm not one of them,

In this age of fiberglass

I'm searching for a gem.

The crystal ball upon the wall

Hasn't shown me nothing yet,

I've paid the price of solitude

But at least I'm out of debt.


Dylan, as the moderate man of  the albums John Wesley Harding, New Morning and Planet Waves  extends an invitation to a moderate and mature audience to realize that we are all together on this planet, that our loneliness can only be overcome by an openness to others which grows out of our acceptance of our own vulnerability.  This is the understanding which the moderate man has to share.





21Rolling Stone, May 27, 1971.

2In naming his outlaw, Dylan combines the gunslinger named John Wesley Hardin and the West Virginia Negro outlaw made legendary by a ballad, “John Hardy,” depending on one’s source. In 1968 Dylan chose this ballad as his “favorite” for an anthology edited by Milton Okun, Something to Sing About: The Personal Choices of America’s Folksingers (New York, 1968, p. 159); Okun writes, “That Bob chooses a bad-man song is no surprise, and that he chooses one that Woody Guthrie also chose to convert into “The Ballad of Tom Joad” is no surprise either. Robert Shelton . . . pointed out in The New York Times that Dylan has been fascinated all his life with the loser, the drop-out, the outsider and the rebel.”

3John, Cohen, “Conversations with Bob Dylan,” Sing Out!, 18 (November 4, 1968), 11-12; also in McGregor, p. 276. A good discussion of the sources behind Guthrie’s outlaw ballad is Jim Leary’s “’Pretty Boy Floyd,’ An Aberrant Outlaw Ballad,” Popular Music and Society, 3; 3 (1974), pp. 215-26.

7Raphael Patai outlines a recent instance of this process in the seventh chapter of Myth and Modern Man, “The Case of Che, or: He Must First Die,” pp. 113 ff. “The speed with which a myth can develop, provided the hero on whom it centers dies at an opportune moment and under favorable circumstances, is nothing short of astounding” he begins, describing Che as the ideal of ineffectuality which the American youth of the sixties wree seeking to worship.

8Dylan writes on the liner to Bringing It All Back Home: “I would not want to be Bach, Mozart. Tolstoy. Joe Hill. Gertrude stein or James Dean/ they are all dead.”

9Murial Schiffman, Self Therapy Techniques for Personal Growth (Menlo Park, Calif.; Self Therapy Press, 1967).

13Paul Williams, Outlaw Blues (New York: Pocket Books, 1969), pp. 75-76.

14Herman Hesse, My Belief (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), pp. 30-31.

15Dylan makes clear his rejection of this type of “reverence” I his retelling of the Abraham and Issac story in “Highway 61 Revisited.” This rejection of Old Testament sacrifice parallels his attitude toward the sacrifice of martyrdom in the New Testament in John Wesley Harding.

19McGregor, p. 404.

20John Cohen and Happy Traum, “Conversations with Bob Dylan,” Sing Out!. 18 (November 4, 1968), p. 10. Also in McGregor, pp. 272-73. The following quote is from Cohen, P. 13 or McGregor, p. 280.

26Joyce Carol Oates, “The Myth of the Isolated Artist,” Psychology Today, May 1973, pp. 74-75.


Chapter one ofThe Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics, is online. Click on the title.

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