John Wesley Harding was the first Dylan album I could afford to call my own. Released at the fag-end of 1967, it took its title from a song about a Texas outlaw and serial killer who, if Dylan was to be believed, was “never known to hurt an honest man”. Who knows, he might have said the same about the Boston Strangler. On first listening to it and the 11 songs that followed, I was bemused. It was not at all what I expected. It had a distinctly country sound but it spoke of “poor immigrants”, “lonesome hobos” and a pitiful “drifter”; of a raw, unforgiving place stripped of saccharine romance. Its cover showed a smiling Dylan who, if you didn’t know better, could have been posing with his gang after robbing a bank.
Belatedly, I came to appreciate that with John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album in as many years, Dylan had recast country music and returned it to its roots. This is what’s known now as “alt country”. Yet again, it seemed, Dylan – consciously or not – had defied the expectations of his fans and taken a road down which he dared us to follow. One of the most appealing things about him is his determination to do what he wants, to not repeat himself, to reinvent, to embrace the new. As an artist, his only responsibility is to himself. He is not a chameleon but a shapeshifter, metamorphosing from folk singer to rock-and-roller to Sinatra-style crooner with many stops in between. “Take me or leave me, I don’t care” appears to be his mantra.
His shift from acoustic to electric in 1965 is sometimes described as his Damascene moment. In fact, it was really a development of his art. It literally empowered him and multiplied the possibilities available to him. Thereafter anything went, and it did. He had taken on the traditionalists and shown them to be stuck in a rut with their fingers plugged in their ears. As the decades progressed, Dylan continued to bulldoze through barriers and obliterate boundaries.
Much nonsense has been written about his so-called conversion to Christianity and the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) where his faith is most overt. Indeed, some fans would rather not have them in their collection. Yet who but Dylan would put alongside a song called “Property of Jesus” one called “Lenny Bruce”? Like Dylan, Bruce was both conservative and iconoclast, traditionalist and rebel. The contradictions added to their allure and mystique. Both defied labels.
Many years ago I interviewed Kris Kristofferson. He needed no prompting to hark back to 1966 when he was a lowly janitor at Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville and Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde. While the backing band killed time, Dylan sat at a piano writing sublime new songs: “Visions of Johanna”, “Just Like a Woman”, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and many more that seemed to roll off a production line like Model T Fords. Kristofferson – who was soon to make his own breakthrough as a singer-songwriter – was awestruck. “It was like listening to Keats’s words being set to music by Mozart,” he recalled. That says it all, really.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy