“Nothing is revealed”: That summary line from “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” could stand as the epigraph for John Wesley Harding, one of Bob Dylan‘s most cryptic and thematically complex albums. Dylan called it “the first biblical rock album,” and its songs are rife with religious imagery, both explicit (“The Wicked Messenger,” for example, derives from a line in Proverbs: “a wicked messenger falleth into mischief”) and implied. Dylan’s lyrics take on the narrative form, eloquent simplicity and interpretive depth of parables.
But in one of the album’s innumerable paradoxes, these parables are the product of an artist who is expressly (and unsuccessfully) rejecting the role of prophet. The title track, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Drifter’s Escape” are filled with characters who are isolated, wrongly judged, exploited and desperate for release from real and metaphorical prisons. Dylan had disappeared from public view after a mysterious motorcycle accident in July 1966, and John Wesley Harding – recorded in three sessions in Nashville and released two days after Christmas 1967 – marked his completely unanticipated return. Still secluded near Woodstock, New York, Dylan issued a clear message to anyone longing to hear from the spokesman of his generation – a role he detested. “No martyr is among you now/Whom you can call your own,” he sings on “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” “But go on your way accordingly/And know you’re not alone.”
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However, John Wesley Harding (which adds a final g to the name of a famous Western outlaw) is also suffused with intimations of guilt, as if Dylan were aware that his own messianic ambitions had contributed to his self-entrapment. “Once I was rather prosperous/There was nothing I did lack,” he sings on “I Am a Lonesome Hobo.” ” . . . But I did not trust my brother/I carried him to blame/Which led me to my fatal doom/To wander off in shame.”
Musically, this all-acoustic, rigorously stripped-down album single-handedly ended the baroque era of rock psychedelia that had achieved its apex only seven months earlier with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Within the next year, the Band, the Rolling Stones and the Byrds all would follow Dylan’s lead and release albums drawing on country, blues and folk sources. From the man who had altered the course of popular music when he went “electric” only two years earlier, John Wesley Harding was a masterful move – the original Dylan Unplugged.