John Wesley Harding just might be Bob Dylan’s strangest album—and that’s saying something. Released in December 1967, 18 months after a serious motorcycle accident led him to drop out of the public eye, it’s an understated acoustic collection that was startlingly (and willfully) out of step in the year of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was also unlike any previous Dylan album. Steeped in the mythology of the Old Testament as well as what Greil Marcus dubbed “the old weird America”, it’s as far from the folkie heartbreak and furious politics of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as it is from the surrealistic, thin wild mercury rock and blues of Blonde on Blonde.
On its release, of course, it was widely deemed a masterpiece, and time has done nothing to dim its reputation. But to me it has always seemed more a sketchbook than a fleshed out, finished work of art on a par with, say, Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks. Take its centerpiece, the apocalyptic “All Along the Watchtower”: Dylan’s version emanates an eerie intensity that works on its own terms but can’t hold a candle to Jimi Hendrix’s howling, terrifying cover. (Dylan might even agree: his live versions invariably follow the Hendrix template.) Elsewhere, the tracks sometimes feel two-dimensional to me: the lyrics are vivid, fascinating and alive, but Dylan’s singing is flat, and the music begs for the wild, colorful instrumentation the Band had recently brought to the then-unreleased Basement Tapes.
I realize these opinions fly in the face of common wisdom, but they go a long to explaining why I am so taken with British folksinger Thea Gilmore’s just released cover of the entire album John Wesley Harding. Without in any way overwhelming the simple beauty of the lyrics and melodies, Gilmore’s vocals and still-understated instrumentation add emotional color to Dylan’s songs. Like all worthwhile covers, Gilmore’s take on these classics lets us experience the songs anew.
On the leadoff, title track, for example, Dylan’s vocal is matter-of-fact, and his band lurks deep in the background, offering minimal support. In contrast, Gilmore’s voice conveys admiration, even reverence for the gunslinger who “was a friend to the poor” and “was never known to hurt an honest man.” The harmonica that kicks in before the second verse is the most Dylanesque element on the album, but Gilmore takes the track in her own direction with some light, almost ukulele-like acoustic strumming and Paul Bevis’s low-key, loping percussion. Their interplay creates a spry rhythmic feel without changing the song’s tempo.
Elsewhere, Gilmore and co-producer/bassist Nigel Stonier pick up the pace, allowing ex-Pretender and McCartney sideman Robbie McIntosh to insert some lovely, lyrical guitar lines that spread the songs out in new directions. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, for example, stretches out to near-epic proportions under McIntosh’s guidance, rippling with ringing guitars reminiscent of his work with the Pretenders.
For “All Along the Watchtower”, Gilmore avoids the temptation to follow either Dylan’s or Hendrix’s lead. Instead, she starts the song as a tentative shuffle on her own acoustic guitar, then opens it up, with the help of McIntosh’s Knopfleresque accompaniment, into an ominous meditation on Dylan’s themes of morality and mortality. Other highlights include a hymnlike, piano-driven “Dear Landlord”—with Gilmore’s most beautiful vocal on the album—and an exuberant country-rock take on “Down Along the Cove”.
In liner notes reproduced on her website, Gilmore ponders the wisdom of her project: “Can one—should one—attempt to re-record, re-interpret, a 40 year old, somewhat legendary piece of work, a piece of work which could be argued to be inseparable from its author? Probably not.” It’s not surprising she felt such qualms: in the rock era, it’s rare for anyone to cover an entire album’s work by another artist. When the artist in question is someone of Dylan’s stature—and it’s questionable if there is any other artist of the last 50 years who is of Dylan’s stature—it must be particularly daunting. Here’s to Gilmore, then, for overcoming her fears and creating another take on this classic, one which unquestionably enriches the stature of the original.