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All Across The Telegraph
on 12 February 2007
Of all Bob Dylan albums, "John Wesley Harding" was the most eagerly awaited. It was his first record put out following his enforced temporary retirement brought about by the motorcycle accident which had occurred in July 1966 and it`s story is fascinating. His previous album, the historic double, "Blonde On Blonde" was a highly produced collection on which he was accompanied by a large electric ensemble of mostly top Nashville studio musicians perfecting what Dylan himself had dubbed his `wild mercury sound'. The songs were lyrically intricate affairs, often lengthy performances (five, seven minutes ; "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" clocking in at just under eleven!). The question was : what would his new work sound like ? The answer was, nothing like "Blonde On Blonde".
Just prior to his accident, Dylan had completed a physically and mentally exhausting world tour which had been full of controversy (acoustic versus electric battle, the infamous "Judas!" cry). He was at a peak of commercial and creative success, but his personal state is well-documented to have been less than perfect. "John Wesley Harding" turned out to be the sound of a man who had seemed to have saved himself from the brink of some kind of oblivion. A man who had regained some degree of control.
Dylan had not actually been inactive during the hiatus. Much `home' recording had been done with the musicians who would become The Band, and this work, the legendary "Basement Tapes" can now been seen as the obvious link between "Blonde On Blonde" and this new album. "The Basement Tapes" would not however be officially released until 1975. "John Wesley Harding" was the result of three studio sessions in Nashville with regular producer Bob Johnston and engineer Charlie Bragg. Along with Dylan (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano) were two musicians from the "Blonde On Blonde" band : multi-instrumentalist Charles McCoy on electric bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. They were joined on the last date by Pete Drake on pedal steel guitar, giving a distinctly country feel to the blues "Down Along The Cove" and, especially, the final track "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight".
This was very much an `album', rather than a collection of songs like "The Basement Tapes" or even a great record like "Bringing It All Back Home" was. The songs here seem to have common threads and feelings running through them. Not to be uncomplimentary, or to devalue the songs in anyway (some are amongst his finest) but they seem interconnected so that, in simple terms, it's tempting (although perhaps too facile) to think a writing genius such as Dylan could have produced them all in a mad concentration of creativity over a couple of days or so. "The Basement Tapes" songs, however could well have been written over a period of around one hundred years ! (and that is also meant as a complement!)
All this may be supposition. What we do know from Dylan himself is that he did something here he says he had never done before or since. The words for the majority of them were written first and kept until he `could find melodies for them'. Indeed, several have a strong traditional sounding tunes and one is certainly `borrowed' ("I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine"). None of this detracts from the fine quality of the material on offer. Dylan's explanation of the mode of their creation and the fact that no other versions of these songs turn up during "The Basement Tapes" sessions add to the uniqueness and special wholeness of this album and make us think that the man himself had similar high regard for this particular body of work.
Much has been made of the religious content of the lyrics, and with the mention of `saints', `messengers' and `judgement' that is clear, and Bob's mother Betty Zimmerman has said that around this time her son started reading The Bible more at this time. There are some dark corners and falling shadows in some of the texts, but most of all the feeling is of joy. Here is a man who has found some degree of peace, some quiet answers to some of his questions and put to rest at least some of his demons.
The songs are mostly deceptively simple with repeating cycles of three or four chords (or less, "Drifter's Escape" and "The Wicked Messenger" each have only two each !) "All Along The Watchtower" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are the best known and an ongoing survey tells us that they both feature in the top ten of most covered Dylan songs, at number seven and nine respectively. ("Blowin' In The Wind" is still at the top, by a considerable margin.)
Dylan restricts his guitar playing to mainly relatively simple strumming throughout and his frequent use of the capo up to the fifth fret gives a high ringing sound. He is effectively supported by Buttrey's solid percussion, McCoy's melodic riffing and, on the last two tracks, by Drake's innovative (in rock) pedal steel. Bob has said in interview that rarely have his best performances been captured on record, but on "John Wesley Harding" his singing and harmonica playing are both excellent. There's control and strength. Pace and passion. A certain cool clear knowingness.
"John Wesley Harding" is a significant record. With it, Dylan returned to us and there was a refocusing of awareness on what may be called 'roots' music. Much of what became the New Country or Americana movement can trace itself back to this collection.
All Bob Dylan's albums are worthy of interest.
Most of them are very good.
Many are great.
This is one of the best.