Solving the problem of evil in the twenty-first century

All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan


(This is a cover of the original Bob Dylan version by Jimi Hendrix. I could not find a good video of Dylan’s version. There are only very mild and superficial changes in the lyrics, and whatever little changes there are do not change the message of the song. Also, this version is much more well known.)

In Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower” off of his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, he creates a political parable connecting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the struggles and anguish felt in the heat of the Vietnam War.
Dylan begins the song with dialogue between a Joker and a Thief. This sets up the scenario of the crucifixion. In Tarot when someone draws a Joker, it is said to represent a new life, transformation and rebirth. This parallels the way Jesus Christ is viewed in Christian mythology (baptism by John the Baptist and his resurrection). Because his association with rebirth and transformation, the card of the Joker in Tarot is heavily associated with Jesus.
The Thief in this instance refers to Saint Dismas, the penitent thief of the two thieves that were crucified next to Jesus. The lines of this song seems to be a continuation of the dialogue between Jesus and St. Dismas that took place as they were being crucified (Luke 23:40-42).
The Joker begins the conversation with statements derived out of the implications of the Word of Abandonment that Jesus calls out before his death. The song differs from the Word of Abandonment in that, in the song, it is not God who has forsaken Jesus, it is mankind that has forsaken God (morality) and, by extension, humanity as a whole.
Dylan sings that “Businessmen… drink my wine… / None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” This is a reference to the verses concerning the Eucharist in which Jesus offers his blood (in the form of wine) to forgive the sins of his followers. Yet, Dylan is referring to only businessmen drinking this wine (i.e. the wealthy; the powerful). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Dylan is commenting on the how the people in power during the time of the Vietnam War would speak of the cause of eradicating the communist Vietcong, but would go about it in heinous and morally destitute ways. In other words, they would get drunk on their supposed morality when they had no idea of what morality is.
There are many candidates for what the Watchtower is referring to in this song, but Dylan is most likely referencing the Fall of Babylon in Isaiah. Isaiah gives an account of the fall of Babylon, which will occur on when Jesus returns to Earth. Babylon was the center of many pagan religions and, Isaiah says, Lucifer is behind the demonic power behind Babylon. Isaiah says the Babylonians should “watch in the watchtower” for the oncoming onslaught. Dylan is saying, in reference to the US, that they will be judged for their ruthless and barbaric ways by a power greater than them in the same fashion as the Babylonians.

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2 responses

  1. This is one of my favorite song. I like how you break down the significance of the lyrics during the struggle in America during Vietnam. I enjoyed your intake of the song and how Dylan sings that “Businessmen… drink my wine… is actually the blood of Jesus Christ himself.

    May 2, 2011 at 2:03 pm

  2. zet66

    You did a good job of analyzing the various parts of the song in relation to the story of Jesus. It is an interesting use of the story- the Vietnam war was obviously very controversial and the song’s implications and symbolic references are very interesting when put in context.

    May 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm

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