All Along the Watchtower

Recorded by Jimi Hendrix

Written by Bob Dylan

Song copyright © 1968; renewed 1996 by Dwarf Music

Let’s start by looking at the lyrics. This song came off of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, which marked a radical departure from his previous recordings. His older compositions often had many more than the standard three verses of popular songs — “Positively Fourth Street” boasted twelve. His lyrics had often been pointed and sharply critical. His use of language was unusual, and called attention to itself by juxtaposing words and images not usually associated with each other.

In contrast, “All Along The Watchtower” is spare and restrained. The song consists of only three verses, with no chorus. The language is simple. Yet the three verses are packed with meaning and drama. Let’s see how it starts.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,”
Said the joker to the thief.

Notice how Dylan starts the song by throwing us into the middle of a conversation, and begins with an urgent statement. We don’t know where the “here” is from which the speaker wants to escape, but we know he wants out. The sense of drama is immediate. We find out that the two people speaking are “the joker” and “the thief.” These are archetypal characters that have existed in one form or another for thousands of years. By identifying them in this way, Dylan invokes a sense of timelessness. Because these figures are broad archetypes, there is already a suggestion that this might be a parable of some sort, a story whose essence remains the same over many different times, places and characters. The joker, or jester, can be seen in general to represent the artist: someone whose role is to amuse other members of the established order, but also to provoke them, to suggest alternate ways of looking at reality. And, of course, the joker and the thief are both outsiders of a sort, united in their separation from more ordered segments of society.

"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."

The rest of the verse tells us why the joker wants to escape: there is too much confusion. But what is confused? Others are benefiting from his labors, and working for him to help produce the results. But neither understands the worth of their efforts. So the confusion is about values: what is valuable and what is not.

“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."

The second verse begins with the thief speaking “kindly” to the joker. This adverb lets us know that he is sympathetic and that he, perhaps, understands the worth of the joker and his efforts. The thief goes on to say that while there are those who think that life is “but a joke,” the thief and the joker know better, having lived through that. So while others may still be confused, these two are not. Since they understand the value of life, it is important for them to be truthful with one another. Then the last line of the verse brings us back from exposition to a sense of drama and movement, and impending action: “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 cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching, and
The wind began to howl.

The beginning of this final verse suddenly shifts the scene, without at first giving us any sense of how this new setting connects to the first one. In contrast to the first two verses, which were full of conversation, this verse unfolds almost cinematically, full of visual imagery. This new scene is populated with princes, women, and barefoot servants, establishing a time and place in the past, although again using enduring, archetypal figures. These figures guarding their castle seem to represent established society, and the existing power structure. But what are they guarding against?

A wildcat growls from a distance, suggesting the savage, untamed power of nature lurking just beyond the well-ordered lights of the castle. Then we see the two riders approaching. Suddenly, in only four words, the first two verses are connected with the last. With a sort of cinematic establishing shot, but used at the end of the story rather than the beginning, we see the thief and the joker approaching the castle. We already know that they want to establish a different set of values, one based on the worth of human life. Their approach towards the guarded castle suggests an impending confrontation. And then the last line of the song strengthens this suggestion with imagery of a furious storm starting to build.

Note how this last verse has made physical the relationships suggested in the previous lines. The thief, joker and wildcat are all placed outside the castle, which is occupied by princes and servants. So we now have, in a very concrete sense, independent outsiders and a rigid power hierarchy.

Dylan’s accomplishment here is nothing less than amazing. In the space of a few verses, in a song so spare it could almost be missed as a throw-away, Dylan manages to accomplish all of the following.

  • Summarizes his own life to date. Given his earlier efforts to make pointed fun of almost everything around him, and his near-fatal motorcycle crash that marked a turning point in his career, it is hard not to see the joker as Dylan himself. He has now learned that life is not a joke, and distinguishes between artists and outsiders who understand the seriousness of life, versus the businessmen and fans who treat his art as simply a marketable commodity.
  • Identifies the primary issue of our time as one of values. Modern thinkers such as Ken Wilber, with his image of our contemporary “flatland,” in which everything is seen as neutral, and devoid of value, are brought to mind. In earlier songs Dylan talked tirelessly of modern figures misunderstanding the significance of issues such as war, freedom and poverty. Here Dylan stands back from these specific issues and reduces the confrontation to its essential element: human values against the established order.
  • Propels his theme with a powerful dramatic structure. From a traditional dramatic viewpoint, almost nothing happens in this song: two riders talk to each other while approaching a castle. We’ve hardly got a decent first act, let alone a whole play. Yet by repeatedly hinting at the intensity of a coming confrontation, and by identifying the two opposing forces, Dylan keeps us on the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. The effect at the end is comparable to the conclusion of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” In both cases, there is a perceptible chill creeping up the spine, as the poet leaves his reader to contemplate the inevitability and intensity of the coming confrontation, and its consequences.
Well, so much for the lyrics. Dylan’s original reading of the song is as spare and compact as his words, with the music adding little. Hendrix’ treatment is a whole different matter, though. The first element to note is how the music here parallels the dramatic structure of the song. Listen to the opening drums and guitars, as one example. (Audio clip – 44K.) The beat starts, intensifies, and then stops. As in the lyrics, the power is hinted at, but not unleashed. The music, like the words, points towards some future action, presents the tension, but does not resolve it. This device is repeated throughout the song, with Hendrix mostly holding back, repeatedly returning the song to its basically quiet pace.

The second element I want to note is Hendrix’ use of guitar to represent the confusion that the joker is experiencing. This is a perfect role for Jimi, of course, since his guitar parts often defy our normal expectations for the instrument. He uses bent notes, a wah-wah pedal, and other devices to represent a disorienting, almost inhuman sonic landscape. Here is one example. (Audio clip – 128K.)

The third musical element I want to comment on, and the one that really frames and defines the whole song, is Jimi’s repeated, gradually progressing ascents up the scale with blistering notes. Here is what I mean, the first time it appears, at the beginning of the first guitar break, between the first and second verses. (Audio clip – 16K.) Here is what it sounds like at the end of the second, and longer, guitar break, between the second and third verses. (Audio clip – 40K.) And here, finally, is the way it sounds at the end of the song. (Audio clip – 220K.) Notice how Jimi seems to be gradually reaching for a note that he only finally hits at the end of the song. And then when he gets there, he repeats it, over and over, making a high keening sound, representing not only the howling wind referred to in the last line, but that coming conflict that the song so clearly prepares us for. And the music ends on this note, as do the lyrics, without resolution, but clearly pointing forwards to some anticipated future act of liberation.

This is simply a brilliant collaboration between songwriter and musician, the accompaniment extending and reinforcing the meaning and drama of the lyrics, and showcasing the unique possibilities of the electric guitar along with nothing more than a bass, drum kit and acoustic guitar.

Next: Cream