Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower" - a lyric analysis - Part 1
Bob Dylan’s “All along the Watchtower” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 1
This song was written and recorded in 1967 for the album “John Wesley Harding”. Dylan at the time remarked that this album was “the first biblical rock album“, this remark gives us a hermeneutical key, not only for this song, but for the interpretation of the whole album.
“All along the watchtower” has only three verses and there is no chorus. The narrative of the song has a rather unusual structure. The third verse: “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view…etc.” tells the story and one would expect the song to start with this verse. But in fact the song starts in the middle of a conversation. In an interview which Dylan gave in 1968, he commented on the album “John Wesley Harding” saying: "I haven't fulfilled the balladeer’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 also noted by Christopher Ricks, an English Literature Professor, who commented that "All Along the Watchtower" is a typical 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."
On the album version of the song there is a high haunting harmonica and the simple motion of the riff hurriedly drives you in a forward direction as if you are heading towards some abyss from which there is no turning back. There can be no doubt that this song represents a very important, if not the most important, place in Dylan’s works. The song was performed in concert for the first time in 1974 and as per today (December 2011) the song has been performed a staggering 1957 times, more than any other Dylan song, even more than his best known song “Like a Rolling Stone” which has been performed 1810 times up till now. One may say that “All along the Watchtower” represents Dylan’s trade mark or identity card.
What is the secret behind this song? First of all, we’d like to reiterate what we earlier wrote on our weblog about the 60 minutes CBS television interview Bob Dylan gave in 2004. I think that this interview may give us an important clue on how we should position “All along the Watchtower”. In this interview Dylan is asked why after so many years he still out there on stage, performing all of his songs on tour. After emphasizing that he doesn’t take any of it for granted, Dylan gives the following reply: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. On the question what his bargain was Dylan answers: ‘‘to get where I am now”. And asked whom he made that bargain with he answers: “With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”.
It all seems to demonstrate that Dylan doesn’t do anything at random. He feels there is a divine purpose, a plan behind everything he does as an actor. He seems to believe that his shows, the set lists, the albums, the songs and in particular this song “All along the Watchtower”, all are part of some sort of ‘perfect finished plan’, a carefully selected process for which he has guidance from above. He feels that as an artist he officiates as ‘Watchtower’ to warn people, in some sort of a way like the old biblical Prophets once did, that this world is doomed. This may be the reason why ‘All along the Watchtower’ has such an important place in his works and has run like a continuous thread through almost all of his shows for so many years. Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics of this song to see how we can piece all those things together.
First and foremost, we feel it is important to note that the third verse: “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view…etc. “echoes the Book of Isaiah Chapter 21 verses 5-9. We will discuss these verses later on in more detail but here it is important to note that in these verses the prophet Isaiah prophesizes the fall of the great Neo-Babylonian Empire, which indeed fell in 539 BC. But it did not end there. In the Bible and notably in the Book of Revelation Babel and Babylon represent, in a spiritual way, all powers, of all ages, which oppose and are hostile to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In all ages, each and every individual human being is called upon to take a moral stance towards Babylon, this call is timeless; the picture that is drawn in this song is therefore also timeless. The question therefore of all ages that now lurks in the background is: “which side are you on?” If your heart is with Babylon (like that of the joker), you will perish with Babylon and there is no hope left. If you repent (like the thief did) and obey to the call to get out of Babylon, you will be saved (Revelation 18:4). I think that this question also marks the discussion between the joker and the thief, to which we are now going to have a detailed look.
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. In this timeless conversation, the big question is: who is this joker and who is this thief and what do they represent? Some commentators say that Dylan is the joker and Elvis the thief. Elvis was once called a thief by many African Americans because his music was so much influenced by black artists. Others say that the joker and the thief represent the two riders which were approaching and of whom the final verse speaks. This opinion is based on the fact that there is this reverse order in the song whereby the final verse should actually be the first verse; the two riders approaching start this conversation: “there must be some way out of here etc….”.
Again others, say that the joker represents Jesus on the cross talking to one of the two thieves which were crucified with Him (Matthew 27:38). I think that this interpretation is not very plausible. Although a “joker” in a card game may be an additional playing card of any value – so also of the highest value, a sort of ace in the hole, in the same way as Paul Simon, in one of his songs, meditates on the possibility that Jesus may be the ace in the hole- on Tarot cards, however, Jesus is depicted by the Joker card. On Tarot cards, the Queen card represents the Virgin Mary. In the secrets of cards she is called the mother of harlots. Joker, however, means fool! Jesus Christ is held up by the card players as a fool. And even more appallingly, the secret language of a deck of cards goes further and declares that Jesus (the Joker card) is the offspring of a lustful Jack, and the Queen mother, Mary. We can find an additional reason why the interpretation that the joker would represent Jesus is not very plausible in Dylan’s song “Jokerman”. It is true; in this song the portrayal of the Jokerman is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, words like “Man of the mountains” and who can “walk on the clouds” and “the book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are your only teachers” look like as if these words point to Moses and Jesus as being the Jokerman, but these words are not what they seem. It all has to do with false prophecy and deception and Dylan warned us on the same album “Infidels”: “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace “ (“Man of Peace”)
On the other hand, the overall portrayal of the “Jokerman” is that of the personification of all evil, in fact of Satan himself. That is why the Jokerman is called a “dream twister, a manipulator of prayers, who goes to Sodom and Gomorrah etc…”
A much more likely interpretation therefore is that both the joker and the thief represent the two thieves that were crucified on either side of Jesus. Dylan calls the one thief the “joker” because in the same way like the chief priests, the scribes and soldiers standing around the cross did; he mocked and joked on Jesus saying: “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”(Luke 23:39 NLT). Although the other thief, whom Dylan also calls a “thief”, initially also mocked Jesus, (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32), he repented in the end, rebuking the other thief - the joker - saying: “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man (Jesus) hasn’t done anything wrong.”(Luke 23:40, 41).
Dylan seems to write a parody on this discussion between the two thieves on the cross. But there is more to it. We have good reasons to believe that the two thieves on the cross represent two sorts of inhabitants of the great spiritual –all time - kingdom of Babylon. The one thief on the cross – called the joker – represents the part of the kingdom of Babylon which opposes and rejects the Kingdom of God represented by Jesus on the cross. On the cross we see this joker persevere in his rejection of Jesus and His Kingdom. The joker is for that reason doomed to perish when Judgment Day comes falling from the sky upon Babylon.
“There must be some way out of here,” shows that the joker is desperately trying to find a way out of the dreadful situation he is in on the cross. The only way out for the joker is to apply to Jesus and to surrender to Him. But the joker refuses to do that and applies for advice and help to the thief. But the thief cannot help the Joker, the thief needs redemption himself. In his refusal to accept redemption the joker represents the fallen Babylon which has been beaten on the cross by Jesus. For the thief, representing the people of God in Babylon, there is a way to get out of the fallen Babylon; in Revelation 18:4 God’s people are summoned to leave the spiritual Babylon: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues”.
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”. Of the Aristotelians it is said that they were liable to the confusion of thought. James 3:16 says: “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work”. When the joker says “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”, the joker uses this as a pretext not to repent as if he says: “there are too many confusing, conflicting, things happening here around the cross, there is a Babylonian “confusion of tongues” going on here, a perfect Babel of tongues, it is therefore not clear to me who and what is right or wrong, so I see no reason why I should turn to Jesus for redemption, I must use my own ingeniousness to get out of here”. The thief could have said to the joker: “I know what you want, joker, you only want is to get relief from the dreadful situation you are in. “Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response to the suffering of Jesus, on the contrary, you keep on mocking Him. The only thing you are interested in is saving your own neck, you have the same attitude as the Pharaoh once had, when he was hit by the plagues, he was after relief and not repentance and as soon as relief had come, he became stubborn again (Exodus 8:15) and refused to listen to Moses”.
The joker continues his lamentations: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”. “Businessmen” is a word from our modern times whereas “Plowmen” has an ancient undertone; it underlines the timelessness of the meaning of the song. As said the thief – called joker by Dylan – on the cross may represent the fallen spiritual empire of Babylon. In the Book of Revelation, Chapter 18, we find a lamentation on the downfall of Babylon. “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth” is Dylan’s a parody on this downfall of Babylon. The joker, representing the falling Babylon, regards all the riches of this world as his personal property. “Businessmen” merchants, they drink my wine and plowmen they dig my earth. It is as if the joker says: “I’’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth” just like Revelation 18:12,13 says: “gold, silver, jewels, and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet cloth; things made of fragrant thyine wood, ivory goods, and objects made of expensive wood; and bronze, iron, and marble cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses etc…” but I’m going to use it for my own purposes, to glorify myself because all of this belongs to me, it is mine”. The Bible however, teaches us that the earth and all her riches belongs to the LORD (I Cor. 10:26) and is only given to man to glorify God and to serve your neighbor. “Theft” in the Bible means using the earth and her riches for your own purposes, to glorify yourself as if you are the legitimate owner. And if you do that you are called a “thief”. The thief, the joker, on the cross represents an empire of thieves: Babylon.
Revelation 18:17 tells us that all the wealth and riches of Babylon will be destroyed in a single moment. The businessmen and merchants, who became wealthy by selling her these things, all the captains of the merchant ships and their passengers and sailors and crews will stand at a distance, terrified by her great torment. They, including the joker, will weep and cry out to all those standing by as if they were saying: “None of them along the line know what any of it is worth. What a shame and waste that all the wealth and riches of Babylon, all the treasuries of the whole world, which are of incalculable value, are destroyed in the twinkling of an eye, nobody seems to realize what any of it is worth”. Rather than repenting and worrying about her immorality and the “blood of the prophets and of God’s holy people that flowed in your streets and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world” (Revelation 18:24), the joker- the thief, representing Babylon - is only concerned about the loss of material property, about the loss of his wine and whatever his plowmen, digging in his earth, will bring forth.
In concert Dylan usually repeats this first verse and ends the song with this verse, emphasizing and lengthening this line and in particular the word “worth”. The band often ends the song with a dramatic end chord. It all sounds like a last, final warning as if Dylan says: “This world can't stand long, be ready and don't be late, we should know this world can't stand for it's too full of hate”
In part 2 of our analysis we will strike a more optimistic note when the thief starts talking and we will see that the final verse: “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view”…etc. is closely bound up with the rest of the song, so that we will find that we have a coherent work of art at hand.
As always, please feel free to respond. Will be continued…….
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An interpretive religious connection can be made to this song, but to do with most songs analyzed herein overstates things a bit too much.
— Larry Fyffe06-08-2021 09:43
Hello Kees, ðŸŒž
What a beautiful interpretation,
I shall keep it close to me,
many thanks indeed.
— Ruth Bass28-03-2019 08:53
He who is positively certain what a Dylan song is definitely about is already lost.
— Larry Fyffe05-07-2018 18:01
The joker and thief are rebels and outsiders, riding up to the castle to challenge the established order, thinking that only they understand the meaning of life and value of everything around them, while the people in the castle/established order are ignorant and either oppressive or trapped.
The joker and thief are going to the castle, during the storm, to break down established order and, in their minds, teach and free people.
TLDR: meaning: Do what you want/feel VS do what you should/order and rules
— TW16-10-2015 04:54
i got so confused [what] i have been searching the internet for explanation but all i found were blogs :-( finally i found this and now im even more confused cant an expert just put it simply[no] ya i know they cant but i wish they just wouldn't make my head hurt trying to even slightly comprehend what they r talking about[worried]
— kitty silva11-05-2012 03:37
I don't like bringing in the Jokerman to figure out what the joker is in this song. They are very different.
The Joker = The Fool but the fool was not foolish. He was the one in the court who could speak the truth because it didn't insult the king directly. So traditionally, the joker is wise and could be used to represent Jesus. Whether it does or not in this song is another question. It's just your reasoning I object to.
— dss09-12-2011 21:48
I don't see that it has to have all that much to do with the Bible, certainly not in the famous conversation in the first verse ("There must be some way out of here..."). It's a timeless verse for anyone sensitive to the way life (writ large) sometimes presses in on us. These days, with one of our two national political parties (in the USA) seemingly going insane and determined to take the rest of the country to hell with them.... I feel like "we the people" are in a serious bind, not unlike those who, 40+ years ago, saw the Vietnam War and the violence in the streets, the assassinations of the two Kennedys and King, as a looming cascade of national disaster with no way out. So we need the steadying voice to tell us, "This is not our fate...let us not talk falsely now..." Things did get better, and we survived all that and will (God willing) survive all this as well.
— Ralph Hitchens09-12-2011 19:39
Great ideas here, even though I have for a long time thought that the 'thief' was Christ (as in He who will come 'like a thief in the night'). But the essentials are clear I feel: the song, although it probably had a lesser second meaning at the time regarding Dylan's problems with his manager and/or record-company, is about getting one's act together and Repentance.
— Mick Leahy09-12-2011 14:23
A good start, but a little meandering. I hope part 2 picks things up a bit and sharpens the focus. Reason to Rock has a great simple analysis at this site:http://www.reasontorock.com/tracks/watchtower.htmlThanks for your perspective. I'll wigh in again after part 2.CRS9
— Chuck Stehney09-12-2011 02:57
John Wesley Harding was the first Dylan album I bought. It was 1968 and the only songs I had heard by Dylan before that were the singles on the radio. After several listenings of JWH, I knew this singer/songwriter was in pursuit of truth. I was hooked as a fan and he has never disappointed me since. Excellent analysis of the album. Thank you..
— the iron horse08-12-2011 23:58
Assuming that the joker is Jesus gives the line 'Life is but a joke' a whole new meaning ( even though the joker himself does not actually say it ).
— Fred Taylor08-12-2011 20:24
— Henry08-12-2011 18:41
Oh brother, Dylan is no saint, yes he believes that his life has a purpose, that's something we all strive for. "All Along the Watch Tower," is nothing more than a social song that never lost it's relevancy. "There must be someway out of here,"---------yeah really Bob let us know when you find that God forsaken door! As far as Elvis goes, get real, that's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
— Jan08-12-2011 17:17
Another fascinating analysis with more to digest! Great work.
— Peter Hyatt08-12-2011 16:08
The secret and the key is that the last verse is really the first.
— Jim Linderman08-12-2011 14:58
The wonder of the song is its potential for meaning and meanings rather than any specific interpretation. It's the two thieves on the cross, or Jesus and one of the thieves, it's two inhabitants of Babylon (by extension all of us) crouching and hiding from the coming onslaught, and even the record company executives and bootleggers... though Great White Wonder, the first Dylan bootleg, would not appear for another two years so it was unlikely to have had that meaning to him when he wrote it. But I'm sure it has occurred to him during more than a few of those 1,957 renditions. And those ploughmen do make pretty good stuff.
— Matthew08-12-2011 12:06
Nice words and thoughts on Watchtower, though slightly academic.
Always felt this song describes the situation on a chessboard, somewhere mid-game : looks like it's gonna be a draw unless black or white is bound to make a stupid blunder !
— bert wels08-12-2011 10:10
Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for...... :-D
Analyzing songs seems to me like standing in an art museum discussing art. It is useless and unnecessary. We will never find out about the intetions of the artist. And we don´t have to. Because all that matters is, how a piece of art (a song, a painting, a movie) speaks to us and what we make out of it for ourselves. So stop your clever analytics, they only work for yourself - not for anybody else.
However...... it is a fantastic song, of course - that´s all that matters.
— Virgil Kane08-12-2011 09:50
I just dont understand why religious fanatics want to make all Dylan songs about the Bible. The reason this song is so often covered is because it is about the music industry and many other artists see their own battle there: Business man they drink my wine is clear, ploughmen are bootleggers/pirates cutting pirate albums, digging into his art/LPs ... and none of them know what this means to him: It is his art, his body of work... Even Van took this line and incorporated into one of his songs... Here Bob is he Joker, the troubadour, as he always portrays himself. The thief also mentionned in Sad Eyed Lady is of course Grossman. They are arguing about CBS wanting to immediately resign Dylan, who dislikles his contract and is not happy with their offer. The tower is a business highrise they are heading towards for contract negociations, princes are execs pressuring him. Bob has no intention of resigning and as soon as he is able he will breakawy from CBS. Riders approching is a double reference about him and Grossman arriving but also 2 contract riders which may allow him to break out soon. And three years and a few albums later (mostly crap albums he released to fulfill his CBS obligations) he will be free, go to Asylum with the Band and win his battle when CBS comes back begging.
— Raph Cohen08-12-2011 07:57