All Along the Watchtower: Dylan’s gift to Hendrix. Hendrix’s gift to us, and Dylan

As all conflagrations begin, so too did this one. Plume of smoke rising, a spark, a licking of small flames taking in oxygen, building upon itself, a blaze bursts forth. Coruscating. Incandescent.

It burns still. It is a song.

All Along the Watchtower started as one piece of a suite of low-key, restrained songs from the Bob Dylan album John Wesley Harding. After the stormy years before (Dylan going electric – outrage, betrayal, a motorcycle accident), this was the sound of the woods.

All Along the Watchtower, with its reedy harmonica intro, prominent bass line, acoustic guitar, may have stayed a companion to the other songs on the album, but for, ironically, it going electric.

And the man who did so was Jimi Hendrix. Expanding the two-and-a-half minute Dylan version to four, Hendrix shot it into the stratosphere. It has never come down.

Half a century ago, Hendrix was turning the rock world on its head. He was reinventing the electric guitar, its playing and its potential. When his hands struck the wires and wood, a new soundscape opened up.

In early 1968, Hendrix was living in London and a song was going around in his head. It was All Along the Watchtower. Hendrix was a fan of Dylan’s. He had started recording Watchtower at Olympic studio, but after many versions was still not happy with it when he returned to the US. Over that northern summer in 1968 he kept working at it at the Record Plant in New York, until in September it was released and was met with popular success, reaching No. 5 in Britain and No. 20 on the Billboard charts, and critical acclaim.

Since his first performance of the song in 1974, Bob Dylan has performed the Jimi Hendrix version more than 2250 times.

It was very different to the original. Where Dylan’s had a balladeer’s folk feel to it (albeit a very short ballad by folk standards), Hendrix transformed it into a statement of drama and lightning opera. It was propulsion in a snaking groove that took it out of Dylan’s orbit and made it Hendrix’s.

It is perhaps the ultimate accolade to Hendrix that the creator plays the cover version of his creation.

Dylan has said as much: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.

“I took licence with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

In the liner notes to Biograph, Dylan said: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way. Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

Since his first performance of the song in 1974, Dylan has performed the Hendrix version more than 2250 times. The official audio of the Jimi Hendrix Experience has been viewed about 96 million times on youtube.

Many have tried to dissect All Along the Watchtower. Some draw a line in the lyrics to the Bible, specifically the Book of Isaiah. In imagery and setting it does have Biblical overtones. Riders are approaching, wind begins to howl, a wildcat growls. These are not of modern times. But it also has a declaration of the inner battle to stand one’s ground, to be oneself. It was something Dylan experienced acutely in the sixties when he was being held hostage to how others wanted to categorise him. Perhaps Hendrix copped on to that, and then plugged the Fender into the amp and turned it to 11.

Given its brevity of only 12 lines, Watchtower is barely a clearing cough compared to works such as Desolation Row, which runs to 60.

“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.

However, in the myriad versions by other artists, what is missed in lyrical content is made up for in extended jamming that take the song into epic greatness, and it must be said, at times self-indulgence. But it has a universality to it that has seen it covered in genres from punk to New Age and back to folk. The range of artists affirms its greatness in both the original and its interpretation. They include Warren Zevon, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Thea Gilmore, Bryan Ferry, Michael Hedges and XTC.

Hendrix gave it a life of its own, outside the original intent. And in doing so allowed those two riders to be forever approaching, the wind always beginning to howl, far into the horizon.

COVER VERSIONS:

The Jimi Hendrix Experience:

Dylan covering the Hendrix cover:

Warren Zevon:

Eddie Vedder: with harmonica

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen:

Bryan Ferry:

Lenny Kravitz and Eric Clapton:

Eric Johnson:

Thea Gilmore:

Michael Hedges:

16 responses to “All Along the Watchtower: Dylan’s gift to Hendrix. Hendrix’s gift to us, and Dylan

  1. Dylan first began to play it “Hendrix style” in January 1974, during his USA tour with The Band, not in 1978, as someone suggested. Those frantic live versions of the song, featuring Robbie Robertson’s blistering guitar and Garth Hudson’s organ solo, held up quite nicely alongside Jimi’s masterpiece. You can hear Dylan and the Band play it on the live album “Before the Flood”. Parenthetically, when the Dylan/Band tour reached Seattle, Bob greeted the crowd by saying that it was great to be in Seattle, the “home of Jimi Hendrix” or words to that effect. Dylan and Hendrix were definitely a mutual admiration society.

  2. to read ” watchtower ” with the last line first and the first line last gives another look at the magnificence of Bob Dylans composition.It may help initially to read it backwards from lyrics written on paper or in the machine . Go on , do try the experience , you won’t regret it .

  3. The awe shown for each other’s talent (Bob n Jimi) is a precious piece in the evolution of this haunting masterpiece.

  4. Correction:
    Outside in the ‘cold’ distance.
    You might want to listen to songs before you write about them.

    1. Hi Timothy,
      The lyrics published above come from the official Bob Dylan website.
      The ‘cold’ you mention, as noted by another reader here, was added by Hendrix.
      Cheers,
      Ray

  5. Listen also to Hendrix perform it live at The Isle of Wight Festival, three weeks before his death, especially the final, ending solo where he squeezes and wrings such great emotion from the performance

  6. Michael Pola – couldn’t agree more. Apart from Hendrix’s incendiary guitar his vocal is similarly out of this world.

  7. I love the simplicity of Dylan’s haunting original version but Jimi(whose studio recordings are almost entirely his own compositions) took this song into another dimension and made his rendition what still is and probably always will be, the definitive interpretation . I also love how Jimi makes the second last line even more evocative by adding the adjective “cold” to “Outside in the (cold) distance”. Hendrix himself was a mostly underrated song – writer of great originality , his lyrics are often as innovative and inventive as his absolute mastery of the electric guitar – Out, out, brief candle . We shall not see (or hear) his like again.

  8. Singer / pianist Yul Anderson did an absolutely stunning interpretation of this song which featured in the movie ” The Dancer upstairs ”
    In my view second only to Jimi
    Terry

  9. Its hard to find a better song than Jimi’s version-I saw Bob Dylan at the Myer Music Bowl in 1978 with Dave Mansfield playing violin doing the Hendrix version and it was just swell. I think it was this big world tour when Dylan first started to play the Hendrix version as we hadn’t heard him play it this way before. Of these covers only Eric Johnson nailed it, the Clapton version seemed lifeless and the balance are just so so. The Hendrix version is a true original, never bettered and superior to what passes these days for rock songs. The Experience were a three piece too don’t forget.
    They don’t make them like that anymore.

  10. Hendrix’s ‘Watchtower’ still sounds like it was recorded yesterday.

    Ah Jimi, we hardly knew ye…

  11. Joining the very short list of songs where the covers were much better versions than the original.

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