John Wesley Harding

Friend to the poor, my aunt Fanny.

Bob Dylan released the album John Wesley Harding around Christmas of 1967, in the middle of my sophomore year of college. I bought it shortly thereafter, and I probably listened to it a thousand times over the ensuing decade.

I never thought too much about the title track. I knew that Bob Dylan was familiar with Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.” I also knew that the last name of the famous outlaw was Hardin, not Harding. Dylan, or at least someone associated with the album, surely knew this last fact. So, the mistake must have been deliberate.

I did not really think any more about this until I recently watched a televised biography of the real John Wesley Hardin. The portrayal made it quite clear that JWH was one of the most ruthless, cold-blooded, and prolific killers in all of the west. Moreover, he did much of his killing while still a teenager. He was arrested at the age of 24, and he was sentenced to spend 25 years in prison. While there he wrote his autobiography, in which he claimed to have killed roughly forty people. Nobody doubts that he killed at least two dozen.

Here are the lyrics to the three verses of Dylan’s puzzling song:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened a many a door
But he was never known
To hurt a honest man.

The documented examples of JWH helping poor people, are few and far between, especially if you don’t count his many cousins. He spent most of the eight years after he left home on the run from the law. He definitely was seldom unarmed. When he opened a door, it was often to escape the law. He also used windows. He would just as soon kill a man as look at him, honest or crooked. No one ever accused the young JWH of having a strong sense of honesty.

It was down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about
With his lady by his side
He took a stand
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out
For he was always known
To lend a helping hand.

There is no such place as “Chaynee County.” The only Cheney County is in Washington, and JWH never visited there. He was married twice, but he spent very little time with either wife, and he certainly never took a stand with either of them. He often did lend a helping hand to his relatives, but usually the hand contained a knife or a gun. The closest that he came to having a job was his participation in a cattle drive.

All across the telegraph
His name it did resound
But no charge held against him
Could they prove
And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move.

The telegraphs definitely announced the $4,000 reward offered by the state of Texas for his capture. He was convicted of murder and, in a separate case, manslaughter. The evidence that he was involved in dozens of crimes is overwhelming, even if one discounts all of the bragging in his autobiography. He was tracked down by Texas Rangers in Pensacola, FL. After his conviction he tried to escape from prison many times, but he was never successful. He was released after seventeen years for good behavior. He did, however, escape several times prior to his capture in Florida. He made many foolish moves. In fact his whole early life was arguably a foolish move.

So, what in the world was Bob Dylan trying to say in this song? It is tempting to conclude that he was satirizing Guthrie’s homage to the two-bit thug of the twentieth century by praising one of the most notorious thugs of the nineteenth century. However, nine years later Dylan himself wrote “Hurricane,” which is squarely in the “trial by folk song” genre. In general it is “a foolish move” to read too much into Bob Dylan’s poetry, at least everything after the first two albums. He was a musician and a poet, not a crusader or a storyteller.

Here is what the Nobel Prizewinner had to say about this song.

I was gonna write a ballad on… like maybe one of those old cowboy… you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn’t want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that… I knew people were gonna listen to that song and say that they didn’t understand what was going on, but they would’ve singled that song out later, if we hadn’t called the album John Wesley Harding and placed so much importance on that, for people to start wondering about it… if that hadn’t been done, that song would’ve come up and people would have said it was a throw-away song.

So, Dylan evidently got tired of the song halfway through writing it. However, he still liked the melody, which is certainly superior to Guthrie’s. So, to forestall people from thinking that the whole thing was junk, he made it the title track. Maybe someone should appropriate the melody for a story worth telling. Here’s a start: “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote no books ’bout the poor.”

I could find no recordings of “John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan anywhere on the Internet. The cover versions are decidedly not to my taste.