Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Apple #112: All Along the Watchtower

About a week ago, a faithful reader wanted to know how many people have recorded "All Along the Watchtower," and why would anyone else bother recording the song after Jimi Hendrix "made it his." The answer, my friend, is a testament to the song's staying power, and Hendrix's genius.
  • The song was originally written by Bob Dylan, and it appears 9 times in his current catalog of recordings, including its original release in 1967 on John Wesley Harding, as well as on live albums and compilations.
  • Jimi Hendrix recorded it the year after Dylan's release, in 1968, on Electric Ladyland. It was Hendrix's only Top 40 hit in the U.S. Dylan was so impressed with Hendrix's recording that for years afterwards, he played it the way Hendrix did.
  • The structure of the song is unusual for Dylan's writing style up to that time, with three verses and no chorus. He wrote it not long after his injury in a motorcycle accident, and it was during this period that the tenor of his music changed from longer, more ballad-like songs, to tighter songs with more unusual and inventive lyrics. He wrote the third verse first, but later moved it to the end of the song.
  • Dylan originally played it as a straight-up, three chord folk song, with the music doing little to support the lyrics.
  • Hendrix, on the other hand, altered the music so that it would mirror what's happening in the words. Throughout the song, he builds the musical tension with guitar solos, then drops back when the lyrics return. He distorts the notes, bending them or using the wah-wah pedal, to get at the otherwordliness hinted at in the song. And in each guitar break, he uses ascending scales, each one reaching higher than the last, until he hits the highest, blistering note at the end of the song, and there he stays, working it and working it. This makes, as one reviewer describes it, a "keening sound," which echoes the last words "The wind began to howl," and suggests a future, apocalyptic moment.
  • Lots of people try to interpret who is the joker and who is the thief and what it all means. Since that wasn't part of the question I was asked to answer, and since I couldn't provide a definitive answer anyway, I'll leave the interpretation up to you.
  • Here are the lyrics, for reference's sake. I've broken the lines the way Hendrix sings them, but I've used lower-case to show that Dylan wrote it so that each line would be twice as long:
"There must be some kind of 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.

  • Hendrix's performance of this song is so seminal, many folks who refer to the song cite both Dylan and Hendrix as its creators. This version made #48 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. ("Like a Rolling Stone" was their favorite. Figures.)
  • Here's a list -- probably incomplete -- of others who have recorded the song. If you recognize every performer on this list, someone ought to give you a million dollars or something:
    • The Band (with Bob Dylan)
    • U2
    • The Dave Matthews Band
    • The Grateful Dead (with Bob Dylan)
    • Eric Clapton
    • Neil Young
    • Richie Havens
    • Brewer & Shipley
    • XTC
    • The Indigo Girls
    • Run DMC
    • TSOL
    • Elton John
    • Michael Hedges
    • Howie Day
    • Larry McCray
    • Jim Capaldi
    • Dave Mason
    • Paul Weller
    • Antoine Rocks
    • Buddy Miles Express
    • Calvin Russell
    • The Dream Syndicate
    • Jackie Green & Sal Valentino
    • Jazz Crusaders
    • Michael de Jong
    • Michel Montecrossa
    • Tom Landa and the Paperboys
    • Al Rowe
    • Den Fiori
    • Jenn Adams
    • Michael Angelo
    • Michael Packer Blues Band
    • Michael Sokolowski & Tim Reynolds
    • Pat Guadango
    • Paul Rose Band
    • Phil Zuckerman
    • Ricardo Ferranti
    • Richard Trible
    • Cary August
    • Border Town Fools
As for why all these people recorded the song after Hendrix did, I can only offer my opinion. I think it's because Hendrix took a good song and made it great. People want to imitate what they admire, with the hope that maybe, just maybe they could be the magic person to top the master. As one reviewer said of Hendrix covering Dylan, "To admire a seminal artist is one thing, to cover his work and top him at it is testament to the reach of Hendrix's talent." I haven't heard every version that pops up on iTunes, but I'm going to bet that nobody tops Jimi Hendrix.

Here's the song itself, available for purchase from iTunes (this link will launch iTunes).

Photo from Bowtwanger's Jimi Hendrix page

P.S. Request lines are still open! If you've got a question and you want the Apple Lady to research it for you, enter it in the comments field here.

Sources, Songs - All Along the Watchtower
Songfacts, All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
Reason to Rock, Track: All Along the Watchtower
Wikipedia, All Along the Watchtower
Rolling Stone, "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time," 48: All Along the Watchtower
Jason Warburg, Review of Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix, The Daily Vault

1 comment:

  1. Nobody can top the Hendrix version. My intention was to have fun with the song.


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