Monday, August 01, 2011

Music Monday ~ The Song not the Singer ~ All Along the Watchtower

Bob Dylan plucked imagery for his songs from the bible, esoteric writings, tarot and other mystical sources. Trying to interpret his lyrics is like trying to knit fog! Yet they do entice us to try.

All Along the Watchtower is an intriguing example, first aired on Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding, it has since been much covered by artists of all genres, Jimi Hendrix's version being possibly the best known after Dylan's own renditions.

Dylan wrote All Along the Watchtower with the other songs on John Wesley Harding over the year or so following his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. His recuperation from the accident enabled Dylan to escape the excesses of touring and make a dramatic change in his lifestyle. With one child born in early 1966 and another in mid-1967, he settled into family life and even took a growing interest in reading the the Bible, which is reflected in the album's Biblical allusions, particularly in songs such as All Along the Watchtower, Dear Landlord, I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine and The Wicked Messenger. (Wikipedia)

For the astrologically inclined, astrologer Neil Spencer wrote a very good piece on Dylan and his natal chart: Gemini: Bob Dylan - The Voice of His Generation.

There's also a post about Dylan in my archives Dylan & I'm not There.

Back to the song.

There's little doubt that for this song's imagery Dylan borrowed from the bible.
See Book of Isaiah, Chapter 21, verses 5-9:
"Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield./For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth./And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with such heed./...And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground."
Imagery is simply a trigger. The insight and imagination of each reader or listener comes into play. Lyrical imagery isn't meant to be taken literally. Dylan, I'm pretty certain, was not writing a song about biblical Babylon. Or maybe I'm being too certain. What if he was....that's what comes of trying to knit fog! However, each reader or listener is entitled to find their own meaning, that's how "the magic" emerges. The same kind of thing happens when looking at an abstract or surreal painting. What the writer or painter had in mind at the time of creation of the piece matters only to that painter or writer, not to their audience.

All Along the Watchtower.
First act: a conversation between two individuals characterised by a joker and a thief (archetypes or two sides of a single personality?) discussing life and its frustrations. The joker isn't happy. He would like to change the status quo. The establishment (the corporations and the elite?) are extracting the best from life, the earth and its bounty without appreciating their true worth. The thief figure responds, presents a more laid-back attitude, yet shrewdly points out that they should know well enough, through experience, that though others might look on the status quo as some kind of joke, talking falsely (propaganda, kidding oneself?) now isn't wise because "the hour is getting late" - facts must be faced.

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth

No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke

But you and I, we've been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late

Act 2: Backdrop changes to a castle with elevated watchtower, the scene is peopled by princes and servants (the establishment, the status quo?) with a distant view of two riders - are they the joker and the thief from Act 1, coming to warn of imending change? We are not told. The atmosphere has become sinister, dangerous even. Wild animals wait to pounce, a howling wind threatens......Is the establishment in danger? Are the two riders representative of the avant garde of a revolution to come ?

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl..............

I have the last lines of these lyrics permanently placed at the foot of my blog page - because I find a grain of hope within them. Thanks Bob!


kaleymorris said...

This entry reminds me of a very cool image of Bob Dylan I saw last week. There are several others you might find interesting, too.

Twilight said...

kaleymorris ~~ Thanks for the link - yes those are unusual and very good - the artist picks an outstanding feature and concentrates on just that - similar to cartooning but more...erm sophisticated (?) and we immediately recognise the subject, without prompting.


Twilight said...

.....not cartooning - caricaturing...

(it's early yet!)