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Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ Was No Friend to the Poor

Bob Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding is more about what it is not than what it is. Does that hold true for the mythology of John Wesley Hardin himself?

John Wesley Harding
Bob Dylan
27 December 1967

In his 1967 song, “John Wesley Harding”, Bob Dylan sings, “John Wesley Harding / Was a friend to the poor”. No, he wasn’t. 

By John Wesley Hardin’s account, he killed 42 men in his 42 years and didn’t inquire about their financial status before pulling the trigger. According to biographer Richard Marohn, Hardin (note that his name is “Hardin”, not “Harding” as Dylan’s song indicates) suffered from narcissistic behavior disorder and had extreme difficulty regulating his self-esteem. The first man he killed was an ex-slave he’d angered by besting the man in a wrestling contest. Hardin was 15 at the time and ran to tell his pa what he’d done. A Texan, he seemed to have a special penchant for shooting Mexican vaqueros with little provocation. Coming in off the lam for his 21st birthday party, he shot a popular deputy as the deputy was pulling an arrest warrant for one of Hardin’s friends from his pocket. The ensuing lynch mob hung Harding’s brother Joe and cousins Bud and Tom; Hardin was elsewhere by then. 

He was captured, tried, and convicted for the killing three years later, but not before killing one Black man and blinding another (both former slaves of Hardin’s Methodist minister father) who had tried to apprehend him. He served 17 years of a 25-year sentence in Huntsville prison, where he rose to the superintendent of the prison Sunday school and studied the law. Pardoned in 1894, he passed the Texas bar exam the same year, setting up practice in El Paso, where in 1896, he was shot in the back of the head by Constable John Selman, Sr., while rolling dice. In Leon Metz’s biographical account, he is alleged to have reached for his gun as he fell to the floor.  

In October 1967, Dylan traveled by train to Nashville, where he set up camp in a Ramada Inn. His producer Bob Johnston was a veteran of chaotic (and extremely fruitful) sessions for Dylan’s previous two releases Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Having arrived in Nashville unaccompanied by sidemen, Johnston asked Dylan what he had in mind for the sessions. Bass, drum, guitar, Dylan replied.  With the exception of an appearance by steel guitarist Pete Drake on two songs, John Wesley Harding was recorded with Nashville studio musicians Ken Buttrey on drums, Charlie McCoy on bass, and Dylan on acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. There is little evidence of overdubbing on any of John Wesley Harding’s 12 songs. The album was recorded in less than 13 hours over the course of three days.  

Dylan had been missing in action for 15 months prior to the recording of John Wesley Harding. His July 1966 motorcycle accident in upstate New York brought a period of frenetic activity to a screeching, sliding halt. In March of 1965, he released Bringing It All Back Home; in August of the same year, Highway 61 Revisited; in June of 1966, the double LP Blonde on Blonde. Each album presented a new, careening breakthrough, topping a seemingly unassailable crest of imagination and creative will, and vision. Almost immediately after the completion of Blonde on Blonde in March 1966, Dylan commenced ambitious tours across Australia and Europe, accompanied by his crack Canadian touring ensemble, the Hawks. The mixed reaction to Dylan and his on- and off-stage state of health and wellness in this period have been well documented in the Bootleg Series’ Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert and in D.A. Pennebaker’s two documentaries, Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document. The seriousness of Dylan’s injuries from the motorcycle accident is a matter of debate; what is not is that he was an artist and celebrity burning the candle at both ends. Consider Bob’s own appraisal: “I realized it was a real accident. I mean I thought I was just gonna get up and go back to what I was doing before…but I couldn’t do it anymore.”  For the next eight years, Dylan rarely played in public.

In this sense, John Wesley Harding is an album of absences. It signified the beginning of a long period of Dylan’s absence from life as a performing musician, yes, but it’s an album full of holes. Holes left by the absent Hawks, off forming the Band. There are no Nashville studio aces like Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, aside from the bare minimum—a rhythm section. No Bobby Neuwirth, sidekicks, or entourage accompanied Dylan on this recording. And there were no requests to please crawl out your window. There were holes where all of Dylan’s words (and hostility) used to go. 

“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (from Blonde on Blonde), was written in an all-day and all-night jag in the same city and same studio 19 months prior. That song featured what Dylan described as “that real old-time religious carnival sound”. John Wesley Harding lacks traces from The Basement Tapes. There’s not a single song on that album that can be traced to the 107 songs put to tape by Garth Hudson in the basement of Big Pink and in and around Woodstock in the spring and summer of 1967.  Where is Dylan’s doppelganger so evident in one guise or another in the earth-tilting work he’d channeled since abandoning the political commentary of his initial three albums?  Indeed, where is Dylan himself? Is that him among the motley crew on the cover of John Wesley Harding?

“I’m Not There”, Dylan sang that summer, in one of the weirder stream-of-consciousness performances to have been captured on The Basement Tapes. “John Wesley Harding” the song gives hard evidence to this off-the-cuff assertion. Many books have been written about, accusations have flowed across decades, and power cords have been chopped at with dull axes over Dylan’s transformation from acoustic troubadour to electric warrior. But at some level, that transformation was just a matter of degree, a spike into the red on the VU meter.  Before he plugged in, Dylan was cagey, verbose, and ironic. After he plugged in?  Still–cagey, verbose, and ironic. 

On the other hand, John Wesley Harding represents a dramatic shift in Dylan’s approach to songwriting, recording, and, most importantly, his approach to walking through the world as Dylan.  It would not be the last time Dylan effected an about-face, but John Wesley Harding, whether seen as the end of a phase of Dylan’s career or the beginning of another phase, was clear signal that if anyone would be unseating Zeus, it would be Zeus himself.  Catapulted from his motorbike in July 1966, Dylan was twisted and transformed.      

What is John Wesley Harding about?  It’s not much about the real John Wesley Hardin, it appears. It is surely not about Dylan, at least not in the direct way that, say, the narrator of “Like a Rolling Stone” is likely to be confused with Dylan nine out of 10 times. As has been the case with Dylan at other seminal points in his career – the Basement sessions, Blood on the Tracks, his underrated early ’90s albums of non-originals Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, Dylan goes back to the well, to folk idioms derived from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, to what Greil Marcus has termed “the old, weird America”. 

There’s oldness in the grooves of my aging copy of John Wesley Harding, right back to Biblical text, for what that matters (and it does), and as much weirdness per couplet as any Dylan album preceding it.  But in 1967, it might have been read as a very unhip oldness (Biblical references?) and a weirdness derived from a cool third-person remove when compared with his work in the mid-’60s and The Basement Tapes recordings of that same year. The Basement Tapes are plenty weird and frequently waltz with the old, but they are short on subdued. How did Dylan get out of the basement to the ground floor level John Wesley Harding, and how (and why?) did he manage to leave so much baggage in storage?  

Dylan has John Wesley Harding as a set of songs about fear. Some of that fear seems to be about women. In other songs, women play cameos, the lady by John Wesley Harding’s side, or serve as afterthoughts, the local color of “barefoot women, too” in “All Along the Watchtower”. Women as focus and muse—central to Dylan’s songwriting to that point—only appear in the final two songs, “Down Along Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. Not coincidentally, these are the only two songs on the album embellished by steel guitar, the only songs written on-site, and they seem to belong on some other album entirely. 

Most of the cast of John Wesley Harding—characters and narratorsare men suffering some variety of distress, physical, moral, or both. The final two songs aside, there’s a Spartan quality to the decisions Dylan arrived at on John Wesley Harding, formal restraints or constraints that Dylan imposed on himself. Here he would forget about The Basement Tapes’ songs and folly, write on the way to the session, privilege concision, keep the personal experience at a distance, forego instrumental embellishments, and record it all in a jiffy. 

It is a return to Dylan’s folk roots at some level. His vision of “folk song”, however, stipulated: the songs of John Wesley Harding are narrative but a long way from the rambling, shambolic narrative of, say, “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Blues”, or the fractured, refracted story behind “Just Like a Woman”, recorded only a year and a half prior in the same Nashville studio.

On John Wesley Harding, songs do not have choruses (that’s pop music), nor do they repeat (with few exceptions) phrases, bars, verses, or bridges.  Dylan had certainly recorded many narrative songs prior to John Wesley Harding, but these songs were different—tightly wound and (with one major exception) to the point. Ten of the 12 songs are three verses, and that’s all he wrote. The songs on John Wesley Harding represent a major change in Dylan’s approach to songcraft and, arguably, his worldview.

Dylan is an industry.  Like Abraham Lincoln—there will seemingly never be enough books about him to satisfy those who need to read about, argue about, think upon, wax elegiac or ecstatic, or roll around in.  Dylan has, of course, been writing about Dylan, and it appears there’s a market for more of that, too. But John Wesley Harding’s presence is a bit thin on the ground. Why is this? Where does John Wesley Harding live in Dylan’s canon? The relatively scant attention afforded John Wesley Harding derives more from its identity as what it is not than what it is. While it’s folky, it’s not a literal return to Dylan’s earnest folk roots.  It’s certainly not Blonde on Blonde II, nor does it reside on Highway 61, nor is it Bringing It All Back Home, unless what you intend to bring home is a cluster of mystics, martyrs, immigrants, profiteers, castle sentries, whoremongers, and the unjustly accused from across a broad historical phantasm of time. 

Perhaps most strangely, it’s not the Greatest Hits of the Basement, a selection from the hundred tracks laid down in mirth and deadpan sobriety and intoxication just months prior to the recording of John Wesley Harding

Who is the wayward troupe on the album cover? Where is the electric coiffure, the shades?  Compare the cover of John Wesley Harding with the cover of Sgt Pepper’s or Their Satanic Majesties Request, all released in 1967.  The Beatles and the Stones?  What a goof—rock stars dressing up and winking back at us, who are in on the joke. What’s John Wesley Harding’s joke?  Whereas Mick Jagger looks like a munchkin extra from The Wizard of Oz and the Beatles like a Willie Wonka fantasy on their respective albums, Dylan actually looks like the hayseed he masks himself to be, surrounded by some genuinely dubious characters. The drifter’s escape?  It was certainly a Dylan trend, even at this early stage in a career that now spans over six decades. But the music of John Wesley Harding represents a more serious, conscious, and willful artistic feat of displacement and departure. 

“All across the telegraph/ His name it did resound
But no charge held against him/ Could they prove  “

Sound like someone we know about? John Wesley Harding, the album is an underrated performance, and its titular song is an exercise in Dylan irony. In its contradictions and contrariness, it’s a performance deserving closer examination. But let’s not mythologize John Wesley Hardin himself.

Works Cited

Heylin, Clinton.  Behind the Shades Revisited.  HarperCollins.  2001.

Margotin, Philip and Jean-Michael Guesdon. Bob Dylan: All the Songs. Black Dog and Leventhal. 2015.

Marohn, Richard C.  The Last Gunfighter: John Wesley Hardin. Early West. 1995.

Metz, Leon C. John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas.  University of Oklahoma Press. 1998.