The only time that songwriters should react to stuff that’s going on…. is when they’re absolutely moved to do so, when it just smacks them in the face and they gotta react. I don’t think you should go out and look for causes in order to have a cause or because it’s hip this week. I think the only time that it’s legitimate is when an event goes down like Kent State where…. we were at odds in this country at that moment, there’s no question.
– David Crosby, 1981

“Ohio”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

While they’re standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs

Don’t you know
You better run, run, run…
Oh I said you better Run, run, run…
Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution

“The Ghost Of Tom Joad”

 

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge

Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass

Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there

Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

 

 

“Blowin’ In The Wind”

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can really see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

 

Just The Way It Is

Standin’ in line marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old lady’s eyes
Just for fun he says, ‘Get a job’

That’s just the way it is
Some things’ll never change
That’s just the way it is
Ha, but don’t you believe them
Said, ‘Hey little boy you can’t go
Where the others go
Cause you don’t look like they do’
Said, ‘Hey, old man how can you stand
To think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules?’
He said, ‘Son

That’s just the way it is
Some things’ll never change
That’s just the way it is’
Ha, but don’t you believe them

Ooo, yeah (instrumental)

(That’s just the way it is)
(That’s just the way it is)

Well, they passed a law in ’64
To give those who ain’t got, a little more
But it only goes so far
‘Cause the law don’t change another’s mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar
But who knows

That’s just the way it is
Some things’ll never change (right)
That’s just the way it is
That’s just they way it is, it is, when you’re waiting.

All Along The Watchtower

“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.
Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them on the line
Know what 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–
Bare-foot servants too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, and
The wind began to howl.

All Along the Watchtower

Written by Bob Dylan
Song copyright © 1968; renewed 1996 by Dwarf Music

Let’s start by looking at the lyrics. This song came off of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, which marked a radical departure from his previous recordings. His older compositions often had many more than the standard three verses of popular songs — “Positively Fourth Street” boasted twelve. His lyrics had often been pointed and sharply critical. His use of language was unusual, and called attention to itself by juxtaposing words and images not usually associated with each other.

In contrast, “All Along The Watchtower” is spare and restrained. The song consists of only three verses, with no chorus. The language is simple. Yet the three verses are packed with meaning and drama. Let’s see how it starts.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,”
Said the joker to the thief.

Notice how Dylan starts the song by throwing us into the middle of a conversation, and begins with an urgent statement. We don’t know where the “here” is from which the speaker wants to escape, but we know he wants out. The sense of drama is immediate. We find out that the two people speaking are “the joker” and “the thief.” These are archetypal characters that have existed in one form or another for thousands of years. By identifying them in this way, Dylan invokes a sense of timelessness. Because these figures are broad archetypes, there is already a suggestion that this might be a parable of some sort, a story whose essence remains the same over many different times, places and characters. The joker, or jester, can be seen in general to represent the artist: someone whose role is to amuse other members of the established order, but also to provoke them, to suggest alternate ways of looking at reality. And, of course, the joker and the thief are both outsiders of a sort, united in their separation from more ordered segments of society.

“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.”

The rest of the verse tells us why the joker wants to escape: there is too much confusion. But what is confused? Others are benefiting from his labors, and working for him to help produce the results. But neither understands the worth of their efforts. So the confusion is about values: what is valuable and what is not.

“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.”

The second verse begins with the thief speaking “kindly” to the joker. This adverb lets us know that he is sympathetic and that he, perhaps, understands the worth of the joker and his efforts. The thief goes on to say that while there are those who think that life is “but a joke,” the thief and the joker know better, having lived through that. So while others may still be confused, these two are not. Since they understand the value of life, it is important for them to be truthful with one another. Then the last line of the verse brings us back from exposition to a sense of drama and movement, and impending action: “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 cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching, and
The wind began to howl.

The beginning of this final verse suddenly shifts the scene, without at first giving us any sense of how this new setting connects to the first one. In contrast to the first two verses, which were full of conversation, this verse unfolds almost cinematically, full of visual imagery. This new scene is populated with princes, women, and barefoot servants, establishing a time and place in the past, although again using enduring, archetypal figures. These figures guarding their castle seem to represent established society, and the existing power structure. But what are they guarding against?
A wildcat growls from a distance, suggesting the savage, untamed power of nature lurking just beyond the well-ordered lights of the castle. Then we see the two riders approaching. Suddenly, in only four words, the first two verses are connected with the last. With a sort of cinematic establishing shot, but used at the end of the story rather than the beginning, we see the thief and the joker approaching the castle. We already know that they want to establish a different set of values, one based on the worth of human life. Their approach towards the guarded castle suggests an impending confrontation. And then the last line of the song strengthens this suggestion with imagery of a furious storm starting to build.

Note how this last verse has made physical the relationships suggested in the previous lines. The thief, joker and wildcat are all placed outside the castle, which is occupied by princes and servants. So we now have, in a very concrete sense, independent outsiders and a rigid power hierarchy.

Dylan’s accomplishment here is nothing less than amazing. In the space of a few verses, in a song so spare it could almost be missed as a throw-away, Dylan manages to accomplish all of the following.

  • Summarizes his own life to date. Given his earlier efforts to make pointed fun of almost everything around him, and his near-fatal motorcycle crash that marked a turning point in his career, it is hard not to see the joker as Dylan himself. He has now learned that life is not a joke, and distinguishes between artists and outsiders who understand the seriousness of life, versus the businessmen and fans who treat his art as simply a marketable commodity.
  • Identifies the primary issue of our time as one of values. Modern thinkers such as Ken Wilber, with his image of our contemporary “flatland,” in which everything is seen as neutral, and devoid of value, are brought to mind. In earlier songs Dylan talked tirelessly of modern figures misunderstanding the significance of issues such as war, freedom and poverty. Here Dylan stands back from these specific issues and reduces the confrontation to its essential element: human values against the established order.
  • Propels his theme with a powerful dramatic structure. From a traditional dramatic viewpoint, almost nothing happens in this song: two riders talk to each other while approaching a castle. We’ve hardly got a decent first act, let alone a whole play. Yet by repeatedly hinting at the intensity of a coming confrontation, and by identifying the two opposing forces, Dylan keeps us on the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. The effect at the end is comparable to the conclusion of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” In both cases, there is a perceptible chill creeping up the spine, as the poet leaves his reader to contemplate the inevitability and intensity of the coming confrontation, and its consequences.

Well, so much for the lyrics. Dylan’s original reading of the song is as spare and compact as his words, with the music adding little.