A comparison of recordings of Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix offers a vivid case study of what Samuel Floyd characterizes as "the complementary oppositions of African- and European-derived musical processes and events." The song itself draws together elements of ballad and blues traditions; and the two recordings treat this synthesis in very different ways even as they share the common ground of late 1960s rock. Dylan's is a spare, acoustic folk-rock rendition, while Hendrix's is an opulent electric spectacle whose sonic and syntactic conception unpacks the latent drama only suggested by the original. In the process, Hendrix offers an alternative answer to the song's existential dilemma implied in its lyrics and emphasized in its musical setting. This paper examines the elements and the workings of the dialogic interaction represented first of all in Dylan's song, and then in the transformation it undergoes in Hendrix's version.
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...
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