An intentionally low-key release saw Bob Dylan fight back against the psychedelic hype of the mid-1960s with John Wesley Harding, an album just as grand and comfortable as his earlier works. Eight albums into his career and the well of ideas was still filled to the brim. Is it a sleeper hit in his catalogue? Not particularly, since the album still achieved gold RIAA status and gifted Jimi Hendrix one of his finest cover tracks. For Dylan to refuse that bend to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s explosion of influence is a bold stance to make since artists at the time were looking at this as a sink or swim moment.
The appeal of the image, psychedelic, bright colours and the LSD influence of album covers from Cream’s Disraeli Gears or the double bill of Axis: Bold as Love and Are You Experienced from Hendrix as well as Forever Changes by Love feature that bleeding in of colourful creativity. Dylan, despite being involved with the Andy Warhol-infused era of culture that spawned The Velvet Underground or the artistic boom surrounding the birth of The Doors, resisted it. Dylan’s inclusion and resilience to that style can be found extremely intimately on John Wesley Harding, an album that feels comfortingly similar to his earlier works. The title track and I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine mark the A-Side as a beautifully rendered collection of folk tales, with the usual rousing of intimate acoustics, strong harmonica sections and storytelling brilliance. The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest may be the best example of that on this record.
Despite claiming the song for his own through a monumental cover, Hendrix’s touches and flourishes to All Along the Watchtower do not feature that folk and country intimacy Dylan had, by this point in his career, perfected. There are remarkable moments that hint at what was to come for his career as it marched on toward the 1970s. It calls not just for Nashville Skyline and the full embrace of Johnny Cash-style country ballads but the lengthier tracks of social justice and martyrs of the 1960s and 1970s landscape on Desire. Where Hurricane may be one of Dylan’s best tracks from the 70s, it has its roots somewhat connected to John Wesley Harding, whose eponymous track tells the tale of controversial folk icon, John Wesley Hardin.
Had John Wesley Harding featured in most other country or folk artists’ catalogues at the time, it would be their greatest achievement. But this is Dylan, and he can make a fine, fine album like John Wesley Harding feel relatively normal. Achievement after achievement, too good for his own good. A remarkable album, featuring some of his finest tracks. Dylan’s work here often goes unsung in the face of Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline, which bookend this effort of folk classics. His work here does not fall on deaf ears though, from his Kafka-like storyline found on Drifter’s Escape or the embrace of love found on Down on the Cove. As engaged and firm as expected of Dylan at the time, John Wesley Harding is a collection of fantastic contemporary folk tracks.