”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.”
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.
”All Along the Watchtower
” is a song written and recorded by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. It initially appeared on his album John Wesley Harding. It has been covered by other artists in different genres, most notably by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. There exists much speculation as to what the song is actually about.
Dylan wrote „All Along the Watchtower” along 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, which occurred near his home in Woodstock, New York, enabled Dylan to escape the excesses of touring and make a dramatic turnaround 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 the Bible, as 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”.
Dylan recorded the song on November 6, 1967, at Columbia Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee, the same studio where he completed Blonde on Blonde in the spring of the previous year. Accompanying Dylan, who played acoustic guitar and harmonica, were two Nashville veterans from the Blonde on Blonde sessions, Charlie McCoy on bass guitar and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. The producer was Bob Johnston, who produced Dylan's two previous albums, Highway 61 Revisited in 1965 and Blonde on Blonde in 1966.
The session was the second of three in the recording of John Wesley Harding. „All Along the Watchtower”, the session's first song, was done in five takes, the third and fifth of which were spliced to create the album track. As with most of the album's selections, the song is a dark, sparse work that stands in stark contrast with Dylan's previous recordings of the mid-1960s.
Several reviewers have pointed out that the lyrics in „All Along the Watchtower” echo lines in the 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 much 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.
Commenting on the songs on his album John Wesley Harding, in an interview published in the folk music magazine Sing Out! in October 1968, Dylan told John Cohen and Happy Traum:
||”I haven't fulfilled the balladeers's job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half… it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of „The Wicked Messenger”, which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider… The same thing is true of the song „All Along the Watchtower”, which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.”
The unusual structure of the narrative was remarked on by English Literature professor Christopher Ricks, who commented that „All Along the Watchtower” is an example of Dylan's audacity at manipulating chronological time: „at the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, and as if the myth began again.”
Critics have described Dylan's version as a masterpiece of understatement. In Andy Gill's words: „In Dylan's version of the song, it's the barrenness of the scenario which grips, the high haunting harmonica and simple forward motion of the riff carrying understated implications of cataclysm; as subsequently recorded by Jimi Hendrix,… that cataclysm is rendered scarily palpable through the dervish whirls of guitar.”
Others have been more critical of Dylan's achievement. Dave Van Ronk, an early supporter and mentor of Dylan, made the following criticism of the song:
That whole artistic mystique is one of the great traps of this business, because down that road lies unintelligibility. Dylan has a lot to answer for there, because after a while he discovered that he could get away with anything—he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like „All Along the Watchtower,” which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it.