“All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan

This is a cryptic song filled with a lot of symbolism which only Bob Dylan may know its actual meaning. “All Along the Watchtower” definitely tells a story, but the burden falls upon the listener to put the pieces together into a comprehensive manner.

Verses 1 & 2

The song is split into two parts which are not overtly-related. The first two verses feature a dialogue between “the joker” and “the thief”. At the end of the dialogue, the two basically conclude that they must leave the place they are currently at due to the people around them not taking life seriously.

Verses 3 & 4

Then the third and fourth verses center on the titular “watchtower”, which is seemingly owned by princes (i.e. the powerful members of society).  There appears to be a serious threat in the form of “a wildcat” lurking outside of the “watchtower”. There are also “two riders… approaching” it, which likely alludes to “the thief” and “the joker”. However, despite “the wind (beginning) to howl” as they do so, it is not clear, within the overall context of the song, that they represent a threat to the “watchtower”. Instead they are most likely looking for a way out.

Possible Meaning

It has been suggested that the story presented in this song is meant to be read nonlinearly. In other words, the latter scene centered on the “watchtower” is actually the beginning of the track, and the conversation between the two central characters happens afterward. Either way, certain aspects of the song seem generally clear. The “watchtower” is symbolic of the overall society and perhaps more-specifically the hierarchy which controls it.  “The joker” and the “the thief” may represent certain types of mind frames. And they have apparently decided to leave to remove themselves from the aforementioned society in the name of preserving their lives. And the “wildcat” represents the imminent threat they are trying to get away from, as “the hour is getting late”. As such, via this song, Bob Dylan either wove an intricate tale which people are still trying to decipher over half a century later, or these are just ramblings that formed into a cool song which listeners take too seriously.

Lyrics of "All Along The Watchtower"

Could this song be criticizing the American society?

Many analysts have noted the similarities between the latter part of this song and a certain passage from the Book of Isaiah (which also uses the symbol of a “watchtower”, etc.) concerning the fall of “Babylon”. So if interpreted in that context, “All Along the Watchtower” can serve as a criticism of American society (as other artists have also used Biblical passages for such a purpose) and its possible destruction.

Facts about “All Along the Watchtower”

  • This is one of the standout songs in Bob Dylan’s catalog. In fact he has performed it live more than any of his other tracks.
  • Dylan’s original version of the song didn’t chart! Rather it was a subsequent, critically-acclaimed cover by Jimi Hendrix which made “All Along the Watchtower” blow up. In fact when Dylan does perform the song live, he plays Hendrix’s rendition, not his own and has even stated that “I always feel it’s a tribute to (Hendrix) in some kind of way.”
  • Jimi Hendrix is but one of the many artists who have covered this song.  Others who have performed it include U2, Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead (sometimes alongside Bob Dylan). 
  • The Australian rock band Wolfmother dropped a hit song entitled “Joker & the Thief”. The song is based on the characters from “All Along the Watchtower”.
  • This song was written by Bob Dylan and produced by Bob Johnston.

When did “All Along the Watchtower” come out?

Columbia Records released “All Along the Watchtower” on 27 December 1967. It was the second single dropped from Bob Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Dylan recorded it the month prior in Nashville, Tennessee. Since then, as aforementioned, it has appeared on a number of his live albums as well as most of his ‘greatest hits’ albums.

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