Album Review: “John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan
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After Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident, he went on an exile and that downtime spawned numerous compositions which ended up on “The Basement Tapes” and his slow, quiet, and country-flavored LP “John Wesley Harding.” It was a departure from his past three records. Instead of a searing, hard-hitting LP, he went simple, direct, and calm. He sounds more restrained and tame. But even when he changed his style, Dylan’s genius still shined through.
It’s mysterious and a bit haunting but as expected from a poet of his caliber, the lyrics are particularly beautiful. Coupled with stripped-down music, it was an about-face on what Dylan did on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. He didn’t return to his folk roots. Instead, he started exploring country territory.
For the title track, Dylan used the name of an American Old West outlaw and folk icon John Wesley Hardin. The addition of “g” was by mistake. It’s an interesting way of opening the album. As I Went Out One Morning is a lovely track but way too short for us. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is moving and unforgettable. All Along the Watchtower is one of the standout tunes. Jimi Hendrix’s version may be more popular but Dylan’s original rendition perfectly fits the rest of the LP. Dylan’s fascinating storytelling takes center stage on The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Drifter’s Escape is an upbeat number and taken to the next level with the emotional vocal performance and harmonica playing.
Dear Landlord is a piano-based track and while often overshadowed by other songs on the album, it’s still outstanding on its own. I Am a Lonesome Hobo features a memorable harmonica intro. I Pity the Poor Immigrant is on the weaker side and a tad too slow. Dylan picks up with The Wicked Messenger which is a near-standout. Down Along the Cove is simple but still lovely for all that. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is a straight-up country song.
John Wesley Harding may not be on the same league as Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited but it’s an essential Bob Dylan album in that it’s unlike anything anyone has ever heard from him before. It’s surprising, refreshing, and exciting.