Personal Analysis of “All Along the Watchtower”

Updated:
13/03/2013

[1]     “There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief
     “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.

[5]     “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
[10]     While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

     Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
     Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Bob Dylan Portrait

Bob Dylan Portrait

Personal Analysis of All Along the Watchtower
by
Bob Dylan

During the surge of music proceeding the Beatles, Bob Dylan stood out as a profoundly influential musician of his time, and perhaps for future generations as well. Bob Dylan was considered the pioneer of lyrical writing, as he integrated riveting story-telling into musical passion. Songs such as Like a Rolling Stone and Hurricane were prime examples of Dylan’s story-telling genius, and other songs such as Mr Tambourine Man and All Along the Watch Tower were a testament to his avant-garde, poetic side.

Possibly the most revealing sentiment about the lyrics of All Along the Watchtower is extracted from the final verse;

[11]   ” Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
          Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

The lines paint an introductory scene for the listener, suggesting that the song’s chronology is reversed. This revelation was established by English Literature professor Christopher Ricks, saying that “at the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, and as if the myth began again.

From Christopher’s finding, the lyrics tell quite an interesting, almost Biblical, tale of both a Thief and a Joker (1). Throughout the first lines, the Joker talks of a matter of freedom to his companion, the Thief. The Joker’s tone seems rather stressful as he claims that “there must be some way out of here.” Obviously, the two are both retained in some form of imprisonment. Unlike the fellow prisoner, the Thief’s tone is particularly firm as he says;

[6]     “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 thief’s comment gives value to the scene as it suggests that the two strangers have apparently known each other for quite some time, almost as though they’re inseparable friends. The response also gives clarity to the two protagonists’ philosophical perspective: that life is contrarily a divine experience. A traditional middle-aged castle with Princes, sprawling crowds of women and “Foot servants, too” is presented in the lines preceding the final verse (9, 10). The picture of the Castle, or more specifically a Watchtower, in the relevant lines gives the perspective of seeing the forest for the trees. While the expansive Castle is visualised as being magnificent, the community within its gates is very hierarchical in social status. The Princes who “kept the view” (9) are established first as the wealthy class, following with the women, who are the middle-class, and poverty-stricken foot servants being presented last. The social Hierarchy is a blatant reference to Western culture’s burden of wealth distinction.

watchtower_quoteYet, with both the characters’ Philosophical values, imprisonment and the social Hierarchy are evident, how do the three correlate? When evaluated from its reversed structure, it becomes clear that the two characters were, in fact, the riders approaching the watch tower. Their subsequent imprisonment is not necessarily justified, however the assumption is made that the two were wanted thieves, or bandits, judging from the mysterious aura shrouded around their identity; it certainly explains why the protagonist is referred to as the Thief.

Naturally, the Joker’s pseudonym implies that the character is comedic and light-hearted, as though life is “but a joke” (6). However, the identity of the Joker is unmasked when the Thief expresses their Philosophical belief that life is quite serious, and divine in nature. It seems that, in light of being in abandonment, the two characters express their genuine identity, as opposed to what the titles convey.

Along the Watchtower, however, the general population goes about their day free from imprisonment. Their identities (i.e. the Princes, the women & the foot servants) are never expressed differently throughout the entire lyrics. Instead, their pseudonym remains the same – the Princes are wealthy, the women are maids, and the foot servants are poor. As such, lines 9 & 10 are directly communicating the political dilemma of class distinction and the negative impact of a mass society which judges people based on their social status and popularity. In this sense, the Joker and the Thief are positioned as people who are direct victims of demanding social expectations. This is further emphasized in the following lines, “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
     None of them along the line know what any of it is worth” (3), as it suggests that monetary value of objects, particularly retail prices, don’t testify to their intrinsic value. The mentioning of Businessmen validates the concept of class distinction, and it gives a more accurate detail as to what privileges the wealthy have lost to the poor. According to the song; the poor, as William Blake said, “see a world in a grain of sand”, while the businessmen find 5 dollars in a bag of sand.

Perhaps their imprisonment is metaphorical in the sense that it shows the consequences of revealing one’s independent identity. The Joker is sentenced to abandonment from the populace as the song reveals that his beliefs contradict his pseudonym. The Thief serves as a close companion to the Joker, being the only one who has remained in the cell of confinement with his friend. In this sense, a genuine friendship goes beyond the confines of social abandonment, and the masks of everyday life are not  just worn over the face, but rather the soul.

The lyrics pose an unusual stance, making it rather difficult to interpret the meaning for some. Like many pieces of literature, however, the texts are entirely open to a myriad of different interpretations. Nobody quite knew what Shakespeare was expressing in his sonnets, and Chaucer never did leave behind cliff notes for his writings. In some respects this is the beauty of literature – one text may have no meaning to one person, yet it may offer profound relevance to the human condition for another person. All Along the Watchtower is considered the latter for me. It expresses a great political and social turmoils in youth culture with typical Dylan song-writing, and it serves as a quintessential example of how literature is endlessly open to interpretation.

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