All Along the Watchtower


Andy Behrmann '24

If you look up “All Along the Watchtower” on the internet, what pops up is Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” released in the classic 1968 rock album, Electric Ladyland. It’s a good song that immediately hits you with a catchy guitar riff. The song is made up of four repeating verses, each separated by a guitar solo. Most people have probably heard it before and would at the very least recognize it. The song can be found in many famous movies like Forrest Gump, Remember the Titans, and Watchmen, and practically every time footage from the Vietnam War or the 60’s in general is played, either “Fortunate Son,” “For What It’s Worth,” or “All Along the Watchtower” is played alongside it.  

When going through Bob Dylan’s most famous songs I saw a song that was also called “All Along the Watchtower” and noticed that it sounded extremely similar to the song by Jimi Hendrix. I thought it was pretty cool that Bob Dylan did a cover of Jimi Hendrix until I noticed the date. The Dylan version was made in 1967, a year prior to the song by Jimi Hendrix. This is because the famous song, “All Along the Watchtower” was actually written by Bob Dylan and not Jimi Hendrix.  

That is not to say that Jimi Hendrix stole the song. Plenty of bands and singers like George Harrison, Guns N’ Roses, The White Stripes, My Chemical Romance, and even Adele, have done covers of Bob Dylan. And, to give credit where credit is due, Jimi Hendrix is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of the 60’s and early 70’s. However, Bob Dylan puts his own style into “All Along the Watchtower” that in many ways surpasses the take by Jimi Hendrix and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written by Bob Dylan.

“All Along the Watchtower” was released on the album John Wesley Harding.  This would be his eighth studio album and followed two of Bob Dylan’s most successful and greatest albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. However, Highway 61 Revisited often strayed away from Dylan’s traditional folk style in favor of a more electric, almost gospel-inspired style of music. John Wesley Harding marked a return to his original style, in which the majority of the songs, “All Along the Watchtower” included, use only his iconic acoustic guitar and harmonica. 

However, the biggest difference between “All Along the Watchtower” and most of Bob Dylan’s songs is that it is made up of just 12 lines of lyrics, lasting only two minutes and 30 seconds. This is compared to his other masterpiece “Desolation Row”, which lasts a whopping 11 minutes and 21 seconds. Despite this, Dylan is able to pack an amazing amount of lyrical depth in such a short time. “There’s no line that you can stick your finger through. There’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler.  Each line has something,” Dylan would later say in a Rolling Stones interview. The song, much like several other songs in the album like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” is a conversation between two people, in this case two figures whom he calls The Joker and The Thief. There are many interpretations regarding who these two figures are. Some say that The Thief is Elvis Presley and Dylan is The Joker, and therefore the song is about the pressures of being famous and having high expectations. This could be seen in the opening lines, “There must be some kinda way out of here,” and “There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.” As the song progresses, The Joker shows disdain for businessmen who ride the coattails of Dylan’s success while not understanding the artistic value of his work. Another interesting interpretation that I have heard is that The Thief is the thief that was crucified next to Jesus, who in this song is The Joker, and that the song is a conversation they had while on the cross. This wouldn’t be the first time Dylan alluded to Biblical stories, with Dylan mocking the conversation between Abraham and God in the opening verse of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” It is also possible that the two people talking don’t represent anyone specifically, but are simply people talking about lower class life after a hard day’s work.  

Although the Hendrix version is certainly more energetic, there is something sort of hypnotic about the Dylan version. Maybe it’s the acoustic chord progression that repeats dozens of times throughout the song, or the pendulum-like way Dylan sings the lyrics, with each line being split into two parts, almost like a call and response, never significantly increasing the range of tone. Regardless as to whether or not you like the original Bob Dylan version or the more popular version by Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” remains one of the greatest ballads of the 60’s and another reason why Bob Dylan is one of the best writers to play music.