October 25, 2020

Lent with Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding

Dylan 1967

The year 1967 saw yet another reinvention of Bob Dylan.

After his early days as a protest singer, Dylan morphed into a folk-pop artist, moving from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and sparking the kind of mixed reactions he has garnered for five decades. Then in the mid-60s, he plugged in and started playing rock-n-roll to concert crowds that lauded and booed him in equal measure. Dylan became an international rock star that people both loved and hated, who produced spectacular music and lived large at a drug-fueled frenetic pace, his every move in the spotlight.

Then in late July of 1966, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, NY. In an article about the accident and its aftermath, Tony Scherman wrote:

The accident was Dylan’s means of escape from an unendurably fast-paced, pressurized life. As he said in a 1984 interview, “When I had that motorcycle accident . . . I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that.” At some point during his convalescence he realized that he wanted a much more tranquil, family-centered life.

The singer remained out of the public’s eye, shut up in Woodstock for a year and a half, recuperating and reorienting his life and career. During that period, several important things happened for Bob Dylan. He had married at the end of 1965 and his first child was born in January of 1966. His wife Sara had their second child in July of 1967, about a year after the accident. Dylan was becoming a family man.

Bob Dylan was also reading the Bible more regularly during this season of his life. In Clinton Heylin’s biography, he quotes Dylan’s mother as saying: “In his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.” Biblical themes and language became a significant influence on the music he was making at that time.

In 1967 he and his backup band, The Hawks (later, The Band), jammed together in secluded Woodstock. These sessions would become known as The Basement Tapes, and The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink featured many of the songs they had worked on together. Key to our discussion here today is that there was a big shift in the kind of music Bob Dylan and his friends were playing. They were returning to a more basic, rootsy sound, leading the way for a host of performers in the 1970s who would take up folk-rock and Americana styles. Dylan again was ahead of the curve. For 1967 was the year of “psychedelic rock,” the “summer of love,” the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, and the emergence of “hard rock” groups such as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The music Dylan was about to release could not have been more different and so again he went against the grain.

Another event in 1967 which had an effect on Bob Dylan was the death of Woody Guthrie in October. Early in his career, Dylan had called Guthrie, “the true voice of the American spirit,” and committed himself to becoming “Guthrie’s greatest disciple.” Later that year, Dylan would come out of his self-imposed exile and release an album that exemplified that commitment.

bob-dylan-john-wesley-harding-1967The album, released on December 27, 1967, was called John Wesley Harding. It featured, once more, a completely reinvented Bob Dylan.

No one knows exactly when he wrote the songs for JWH, but in the fall of 1967, he carried them down to Nashville, met with producer Bob Johnston in the Ramada Inn, played the songs for him and suggested that they use only bass, guitar, and drums to accompany his voice and harmonica. (Later, they would add a bit of steel guitar to a couple of the songs.)

So, with Kenneth Buttrey on drums and Charlie McCoy on bass, Bob Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding, requiring only three stints in the studio and about nine hours of recording time.

After he had begun listening to the record, Ralph J. Gleason of Rolling Stone called JWH “a warm, loving collection of myths, prophecies, allegories, love songs and good times.” The record couldn’t have been more different than Dylan’s previous release, the riotous Blonde on Blonde. John Wesley Harding was a complete, unexpected departure in its music and attitude:

  • Its songs have a narrative structure, with characters that have faces and names. Many of these characters are outsiders and outcasts, who offer lessons or examples for the listener.
  • Its lyrics as well as the music and accompaniment are more spare, shorter, and direct. Surrealism is absent, replaced by stories, sentiments, and even moral lessons.
  • It reflects biblical passages and themes. One author found 61 biblical allusions on the record. All Along the Watchtower is based specifically on Isaiah 21:5-9. It is said that Dylan himself called this record, “the first biblical rock album.”
  • It translates these themes through language and situations that reflect Americana.

DylanBWThe Bob Dylan who sang the songs on John Wesley Harding looked different. Gone was the wild hair, the sunglasses, the thin, wasted look of debauchery. Instead, his face appeared fuller, his eyes clear, his demeanor relaxed and at peace.

Bob Dylan would not tour again for seven more years. After John Wesley Harding, he would continue to confound his followers by releasing, of all things, a country record called Nashville Skyline.

I’ve lost track of how many times Bob Dylan has reinvented himself, but amazingly, he remains a person and artist who still garners interest in 2014. The changes that took place in him back in 1967 tell a remarkable tale of an artist who found strength to go against the crowd and even the person he had himself become so that his life and art might grow and develop.

* * *

Well, what has this all got to do with Lent? you ask.

  • I think it shows the possibility we all have to “reinvent” ourselves, or in Christian terms, to be remade and re-formed — a classic Lenten theme.
  • It also shows that what it sometimes takes for that to happen is an intentional withdrawal from the life we know so that we can discover the life we are meant to have. Lenten practices are designed to help in this process.
  • It speaks to the power of the Bible to reshape our thinking, our language, our work. Bob Dylan may not have “become a Christian” through these experiences, but the Bible definitely had a profound effect on him. One can see how its stories and words utterly transformed his lyrics, music, and entire songwriting approach at this time in his life. Lent can be a time to let the Bible work change in us.

Guess what I’m listening to during these days of Lent?


  1. I read somewhere that Dylan does not like JWH, but I enjoy it.

    His interview in Rolling Stone Magazine Issue 1166 September 27, 2012 is one of the strangest you’ll ever read. 🙂

  2. “I think it shows the possibility we all have to “reinvent” ourselves, or in Christian terms, to be remade and re-formed — a classic Lenten theme.”

    But who is the one who keeps doing the re-inventing? Who is “The Real Bob Dylan”? Who is the elusive one who wears many masks but never shows his own face? Who is the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz? Is he hiding, or playing, or playing hide-and-seek? Or is he just playing hide? Is he Melville’s “Confidence Man”? Is he the one conducting “The Never Ending Tour”?

    My Zen teachers always taught that the self, and everything else for that matter, is entirely composed of non-self attributes, that no matter how thorough your inquiry you will never find something unique to your own identity. No phenomenon, including the self, has any unique quality, they would say, but all phenomenon inter-exist. This teaching was affirmed in two doctrines: the doctrine of no-self, and the doctrine of dependent origination.

    When I made my way back into Christianity, ahead of me in the distance I thought I could discern two goals of my journey: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and my true self, who God held in trust. But as I’ve moved along this road for decades now, those goals seem to endlessly recede, and the road itself appears circular, switching back so many times that I don’t know what direction I’m heading in anymore, and sometimes it seems like there’s “no direction home.” Sometimes I think, even fear, that my Zen teachers were right.

    I can only walk by my paltry faith, which, though not completely blind, provides me with only enough light to see just a short distance ahead. In that short distance I can see neither God nor my self, though, if I’m attentive, I can sometimes, sometimes intuit the presence of Jesus by the very shape of his felt absence.

    Such is my lifelong Lenten journey.

    • Robert,

      Merton, Rohr, and many of the ancient mystics observe that the transcendence of the Self brings us to God who is NoThing. Everything we do and say are fingers pointing to the moon.


  3. “You’re gonna have to serve somebody
    it may be the Devil
    or it may be the Lord
    but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

    • That came about ten years later.

    • BTW Pattie,

      Back in the late seventies, early eighties I think, I had a chance to go see Dylan but for one reason or another I couldn’t make it…. which turned out to be a good thing because I heard he started his first song playing a few bars from one of his classics… not remembering which at the moment, then stopped and said he wasn’t doing that anymore and launched into all this Christian music, for the whole show. According to one reviewer half the audience walked out – and since I was a pagan at that time I’d probably done the same….

  4. “Ain’t workin’ on Maggies’ farm no more…”

    • …And I was standing on the side of the road
      Rain falling on my shoes
      Heading out for the East Coast
      Lord knows I’ve paid some dues getting through….
      …Tangled up in blue.

      …singing this while playin my left handed Yamaha acoustic.. in a voice about as bad as Dylan’s

  5. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    The Bible doesn’t have the power to do anything. It’s a book. It’s the Holy Spirit that acts on our hearts.

    • “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterfalls.”

      It doesn’t get any deeper than the Bible. The Spirit in our hearts has to correspond to the Spirit in which it was written. I’ve been reading St Maximus the Confessor and what he does with the Bible is breathtaking.

    • Though I have moved away from my fundamentalist/evangelical stances on such matters as inerrancy, I still see the Bible as God’s living word in a way no other book is. Yes, it is the Spirit who teaches, but the Bible is his megaphone of choice.

    • The Bible is such an interesting thing, isn’t it? It can provide a lot of head knowledge, but do absolutely nothing for the heart. One need only look at the Pharisees (and many Christians) to see how the use of scripture can re-shape people into a bunch of self-righteous theologians who aren’t anywhere near a real knowledge of God. People can also find God and Jesus WITHOUT the Bible, which attests to the need and power of the Holy Spirit.

      On the other hand, to me the Bible illuminates more clearly and fully who God is and the need for Christ. Like CM said, the Bible appears to be God’s megaphone of choice. And I can personally attest that my walk with God and Christ wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is without the Bible and consistent reading of the Word. (My walk also wouldn’t be where it is without the mentorship of a few Christian friends.)

      • That Other Jean says

        And yet, looked at another way, the Bible can provide a great deal for the heart, and nothing for the head. Through poetry, song, anecdote, and parable, the writers of the Bible speak of charity toward others, define God as love, explain how to live in, for, and through the love of God and of their fellows. There are origin stories, not history, lots of wishful thinking, triumphant retelling of victories against enemies by the winners, explanations of what we now call science filtered though unscientific minds for unscientific audiences, with God as the mover and shaker of what we now know are natural processes. Scripture can shape people into self-righteous, intolerant blowhards if read as volumes of “head knowledge.” It can also point people toward knowledge of the love of God, furthered by the life of Jesus, and encourage us to follow His directions, loving those He loved.

    • I don’t know if I could ever say the Bible doesn’t have the power to do anything. Too big of a separation imagined between the Bible and the Spirit is not a good thing. Kind of like too much separation between the Spirit and Christ.

  6. “Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, if it is so that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians3:12-14.

    “He who finds his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:39

    “Empty canvas waits before the Painter,
    waits to be the painting it must be.
    Unto this end it has rightly been created
    to reflect rightly what the Painter sees.
    A beauty that will surely find its life within its dying
    so another might be born again.
    And in this constant death a constant beauty is created
    within a constant love that never ends.
    Jesus is the Master Painter.
    And the Holy Spirit is the Master’s brush
    to be dipped within the colors that portray the Father’s love,
    that the canvas of our life might know the Master’s touch,
    to portray the beauty of the Master’s brush.”
    – from “Empty Canvas” by John Michael and Terry Talbot

    Lent may be more about abandonment and surrender. The Israelites left a life they knew in Egypt for the desert of Sinai. When they were in the Sinai, they wanted to go back to Egypt. On the steps of the promise land, they wanted to stay in the desert. To move forward, they needed to break with the past. That is not easy to do. It’s easier to look back to the good old days than burn bridges and move forward. The fine line between heritage and nostalgia is difficult to discern.

    “Holy Father, as we stand before Your throne
    As we look upon Your face
    We confess Your matchless grace
    Lord and Savior, we have nothing without You
    There is nothing we can do
    But to serve and follow You
    And surrender, and surrender, to surrender, all our dreams
    All we are, all that we are to become, all our love”
    – “Surrender” by Glenn Kaiser

  7. “You’re only a pawn in the game.” Written after Medgar Evers was shot in his driveway. It may be “WE’re only a pawn. Do you think BD was divinely inspired? His grief over this death shows the love of Christ in his heart to me.

  8. The subject of reinvention bring toons these words by Bruce Cockburn:

    I’ve proven who I am so many times
    The magnetic strip’s worn thin
    And each time I was someone else
    And every one was taken in
    Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/cockburn-bruce/pacing-the-cage-lyrics/#I5QWUpZ3yAJkDOBc.99

  9. I love reading about gloriously flawed people like Bob Dylan. They give “significantly flawed” people like myself hope. (Another of my favorite “gloriously flawed” people is John Lennon.)

    • One of my personal favorite sinners is Brendan Manning, of “Ragamuffin Gospel” fame whom I only came to know and love due to an introduction here on IM!

      • Yes, Pattie!! And I only recently discovered Manning myself, just a short time before he passed away.

  10. Vega Magnus says

    Psychedelic rock has been making something of a comeback in the metal underground. Blood Ceremony is pretty solid and their lyrics make plenty of references to old horror flicks and books. Purson is also good, but I think my personal favorite is Jex Thoth. Their first album is rather heavy with a large dose of fuzz in the production while their second album is considerably slower and more relaxed. I recommend checking out all three of these bands.

  11. Seems what happened to Bob Dylan in a motorcycle accident was a mystical experience that he has been coming to grips with since. Since I know that Luther dismissed mystical theology as more Platonic than Christian, I’m using the term in sense defined by Jerome Gellman as people seeing their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking which is part of human transformation.

  12. I just this morning finished Spirituality and the Awakening Self, by David Brenner. This is an interesting post-script. Been listening to Dylan all week.

  13. I’d be the first person in the room to face-palm if someone were to say, “Who’s Dylan Thomas?” after someone had described why they consider “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to be their favorite poem.

    Oddly, though, when it comes to Bob It’s-My-Last-Name Dylan, I’m the face-palm instigator. Dylan’s eldest child is apparently about a half-decade my senior, which is to say that I’m squarely in Gen-X territory. I feel like essentially any discussion about Bob Dylan is going on over at the grown-ups table where my folks are sitting while my lot are unaccountably still putting pitted olives on the ends of our fingers and giggling wildly.

    Intellectually, I know Dylan’s depth is profound. When I actually *hear* him sing, though, I confess to still “not getting it.” Please tell me it’s not a “you had to be there” sort of thing — I hate that time-bound retort– but I keep inching towards the sentiment as the years go on.

    • I’ve always liked Dylan’s music, although as I get older I like it less than I did. My wife, a musician and like me a midstream baby-boomer, has a thorough dislike of Dylan, and whenever I try to explain my continuing affection for his music to her she just laughs at me. At those moments, I have to confess that I don’t really understand why I like his music so much, either. Yes, yes, I know, he exponentially expanded the range of subjects that pop music lyrics could explore, and he had a palette of imagery at his fingertips that far outstripped any pop artist before or (arguably) since, but, no matter what the rock press said, he was emphatically not a poet, nor was he a visionary in any very meaningful sense, except to the degree that he altered the pop music world, which isn’t necessarily very meaningful. He was an enormously ambitious self-promoter, who at the same time, enigmatically, hid his true identity behind very conscious public image changes every few years. I think what he did, along with the Beatles and some others, was to give us permission to open our minds to a much wider world than was up to that point given to us in pop-culture, an imaginative world that was multidimensional and vividly free, that was anarchically creative and seemed endlessly fecund. He changed things because he changed us. Those of us who came under his artistic influence have his fingerprints all over our psyches, and there’s no getting away from that, whether we like it or can it explain it or not.

      • Well… I like him because his lyrics are a bit deeper than singing “I want you… sooo bad”… wait… he did that song…. anyway great lyrics and he sang with a nasally twang that actually sounds worst than my singing……

    • @Trevis:

      Dylan over the last couple decades is not the Dylan that forever changed popular music. Also, so much of what you take for granted now – musicians writing and singing their own songs, singles on the radio that are more than 2:30 minutes long, etc. – was started by Dylan so you don’t recognize the impact he had.

      I was there, but I didn’t really hitch onto the Dylan bandwagon until a few years ago, and now I own everything he’s officially released except for the latest CD, Another Self-Portrait. Watch Scorsese’s Dylan interview/documentary movie No Direction Home. Watch the just-released video (Blu-ray preferably) of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert from 1992. For fun, also watch the movie I’m Not There, with 6 different actors playing Bob Dylan in his various life phases (and be sure to watch the Special Features, too). Watch The Other Side of the Mirror, which chronicles Dylan at the 1963, 1964, and 1965 Newport Folk Festival to see how he single-handedly played the Pied Piper and took the folk movement with him and left it in the dust.

      Then realize that Bob Dylan isn’t even Bob Dylan – he’s whatever his muse makes him. And as the Rolling Stone interview I linked to shows, He’s Not There. Also read this interview/article in Esquire Magazine from 2014. http://www.esquire.com/features/who-is-this-bob-dylan-interview-0214

      • In “Don’t Look Back,” a documentary of Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, there is a segment in which Dylan meets with British folk singer Donovan in Dylan’s hotel room. Donovan plays one of his mindless little ersatz folk ditties for Dylan as Dylan listens with a bemused smile. When Donovan finishes, Dylan proceeds to play and sing a blistering, gloatingly powerful and masterfully compelling version of his “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and there’s no mistaking the contempt for Donovan’s puny talents that Dylan is at that moment expressing as a subtext to the song. Though Donovan seems astonishingly unaware of the insult that Dylan has just given him, the documentary’s director is keenly aware, as is the film audience, that Dylan’s enormous talent dwarfs the mediocrity of Donovan, and that Dylan knows it. As you watch the scene, if you’re like me, you think two things: Bob Dylan is a real jerk; and close on that sentiment, and embarrassingly, you also think: Bob Dylan is a creative genius.

        • “As you watch the scene, if you’re like me, you think two things: Bob Dylan is a real jerk; and close on that sentiment, and embarrassingly, you also think: Bob Dylan is a creative genius.”


      • “Then realize that Bob Dylan isn’t even Bob Dylan – he’s whatever his muse makes him. And as the Rolling Stone interview I linked to shows, He’s Not There.”

        Bob Dylan is Herman Melville’s Confidence Man with a guitar and a song.

    • I’m a millennial and I love Dylan. It’s not just a generational thing.

      Blood on the Tracks is one of his best albums and more immediately accessible than some of his 60s psychedelic work, so give that a try.

    • Thanks to all of you (Robert F, Joel, EricW). Perhaps my own times will be a-changin’!

  14. Ok, I have to ask. Where did he get the name for the album? Does it have a meaning?

    • It’s based on a real outlaw named John Wesley Hardin. Johnny Cash had done a song about him a few years earlier. Dylan uses the name, but the lyrics don’t really match the actual story of his life. He portrays his character as a kind of Robin Hood.

      • I’m familiar with Hardin (the outlaw who shot one of his men for snoring too loudly) – in fact, I am friends with one of his descendants (totally random six degrees thing). I was just wondering why the “g” on the end? Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

  15. Reading that Rolling Stone article reminds me of John McAfee. Either he’s lost it (which I doubt), or he’s messing with the journalist, and us.