All Along the Watchtower

On several occasions this semester, we have explored the poetry of music lyrics.  Such being the case, I wanted to look into the lyrics of one of my favorite musicians: Bob Dylan.  Countless times I have listened to his song, “All Along the Watchtower” (no it was not written by Jimi Hendrix) and although I have always enjoyed the lyrics, I never looked at them for poetic value.

For the sake of context…

All Along the Watchtower

“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

As I read through the lyrics, I looked for some typical poetic qualities. The lyrics of “All Along the Watchtower” are written in rhyming couplets. The rhymes are simple (thief/relief, fate/late), so they don’t sound forced at all. Unlike many song lyrics, which make little sense without the melody, “All Along the Watchtower” reads like poetry on the page. Each line is divided into two sections of about 5-8 syllables, with a pause in between (caesura). The first section of every line has an accent on one of the syllables, which Dylan hits on in the recorded version (link below): “There must be some way OUT of here!” These over-the-top accents are one of Dylan’s signature moves.  I think this connects with the discussion we had about “word bending” (Eminem) and how the poet himself adds a particular twist on the word. Sometimes they manage to entirely change the sound of the poetry depending on how it is read.  Additionally, the notion of performance brought to mind spoken word, which is written with the intent of being heard out lout (as are lyrics). 

This is a short song and one that doesn’t really stand out on the album (not because the song isn’t great but because the whole album is a classic). Still, it remains relevant today because of the famous cover by Jimi Hendrix, which perhaps reached a broader audience.  Bearing this in mind, I tried to compare Dylan’s performance of the song with that of Jimi Hendrix. 

Dylan’s singing throughout the song resembles a seesaw as it changes in pitch from high to low, high to low. “Outside in the distance…” (high) “…a wildcat did growl” (low) “Two riders were approaching…” (high) “…the wind began to howl” (low). It’s as though he’s teasing us with the promise of a climax – some kind of resolution to the song and its half-complete story – only to change his mind and keep us waiting in suspense.  The lyrics end on one at one of these low, mysterious notes. In this way, his performance of the poetry, adds to its meaning.  Then, of course, the harmonica comes back like the howling wind before petering out.

Jimi Hendrix’s cover, unlike Dylan’s version, doesn’t tease us into thinking we’re about to get some kind of climax. This version is climax from start to finish. It begins with two huge drumbeats and has loud guitar solos all over the place. Hendrix keeps things loud and exciting all the way through, but near the end he kicks it up to ANOTHER level. While Dylan sings the last verse in a low and mysterious tone, Hendrix shouts it near the top of his range, just before letting his guitar take over with one of his loudest and wildest solos.

Each song has a different feel to it, and although the words are the same, the performance is unique. In this regard, perhaps the poetry is different based on its context and how it’s performed.   

FUN FACT: Dylan has performed this song more than any other (even more than “Like a Rolling Stone.”

A couple of versions of the song (all awesome in my opinion)

Bob Dylan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YanjY9CsPDQ

Jimi Hendrix: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6oTzmkyjG8

Dave Matthews Band: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yam6mrCCvD4

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