Song: “Dear Landlord”
Album: John Wesley Harding
Release Date: December, 1967
In late 2016 the magazine Uncut released the excellent “Dylan: The Complete Story”, which included an equal-treatment review of every one of Bob Dylan’s 37 studio albums to that date (#38 Triplicate had not been released yet). Part of the review was a five-star ranking of every song on each album (1 being the lowest and 5 the highest). After reading through the reviews and song rankings, I found myself agreeing with the magazine to such a degree that I did some math. I tallied the total number of stars for all the songs on a given album, and divided by the total number of songs on that same album -- to get the mean. What album ended up ranking on top? Why it was none other than the relatively obscure (by Dylan standards) John Wesley Harding, which received a 4.75 out of possible 5 (see the bottom of this entry for the full statistical summary of every album, ranked best to worst based on that star summary).
For those out there who are loosely interested in Bob Dylan’s music, perhaps even many of those who consider themselves fans, I’m pretty sure this would come as a bit of a shock, possibly even evoking a “John Wesley who?” response. Not me. I love this album. In fact - and this could be sacrilegious to you ‘Dylanologists’ out there – over the years I have found myself connecting more frequently to this record than I do to the masterpiece that preceded it; 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. It may have something to do with John Wesley Harding being one of Bob Dylan’s least ambiguous albums. It may have to do with the professional bare bones rhythm section. As with any of Dylan’s music, however, it’s far more complex than that.
The story behind how John Wesley Harding came together is quite profound, which surely contributed to the aura of what we hear in the final product. At the time (1967), Bob Dylan was immersed in musical isolation with The Band in upper state New York (see the last Master Blueprint for details), writing and performing a plethora of new material. While he was doing this, he was also privately working on material for what would become John Wesley Harding. Not a one of the songs from that album did he ever rehearse with The Band. He would make several forays down to Nashville by train to work on John Wesley Harding with three entrusted session musicians.
I find this all fascinating. I mean, who does this? Both endeavors would end up proving to be astoundingly creative. Both were masterfully conceived. And both totally separate from one another, but done at the same time. In effect, Dylan was compartmentalizing two brilliant concepts, one (what would ultimately be known as The Basement Tapes) of which he was content to leave secluded from the public eye.
Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Years” in the late 70s and early 80s are well documented. And if that period is to be associated with the New Testament, as “Gospel” would suggest, a follow up thought that could arise from this general recognition is… how about the Old one? Well, that’s the Testament feel I get when listening to John Wesley Harding. As with the Old Testament, there’s foreboding on this album. There are lessons to be learned too. And there are flawed characters, which play out on John Wesley Harding in the guise of messengers, hobos, immigrants, drifters, little neighbor boys, jokers and thieves. There are also martyr-like heroic qualities that play out in the form of St. Augustine, John Wesley Harding and Tom Paine. There’s also moral dilemma to contemplate all over, particularly in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. And there is a general sense of prophecy that permeates throughout the album.
On top of all that there is what I believe to be a plea to God in the guise of….. a landlord (a twist perhaps on Lord)
“Dear Landlord” should have been the first song on John Wesley Harding (it is the first song on side 2 of the record). Bob Dylan was making a “soulful bounding leap” in 1967, from his high octane, urban, plugged in, world traveler persona to a rural, pastoral family oriented one (again, see the last Master Blueprint entry for more on this). John Wesley Harding was the first public revealing of this new persona. And no song could have portrayed this transition, this new awakening, any better than “Dear Landlord”.
“Dear Landlord” ( https://vimeo.com/251843900 ) is a Christian prayer. I say ‘Christian’ because the second stanza includes the line “I know you’ve suffered much”. I say ‘prayer’ because I can relate to this sort of prayer. Bob Dylan is reflecting, and somewhat reluctantly coming to terms with his God-given gifts. He wants to make it clear to God that he understands this. There’s a bit of lament too (“All of us, at times, we might work too hard, to have it too fast and too much…..”). But Dylan is not abandoning his past here. On the contrary, he’s reaffirming it. And so, I believe “Dear Landlord” sets the ground rules for the long haul of Bob Dylan’s life, including this Never Ending Tour he is on. It’s a pact of sorts. A pact with God.
I played John Wesley Harding in the car all of this past week, and I have to admit that I was struggling to come up with some talking points for my first-notion focus song, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (I will have to loop back to that one for some other time). And then, on a drive back from a work trip to Augusta, Maine this past Thursday, a distinct memory came flooding back as I listened to “Dear Landlord”, and I immediately knew that I had to abandon my initial inclination.
The memory I refer to was from way back when I could not have been much more than 5 years old (I know this because it was a memory from the backyard of my parents first home on Mill Street in Franklin, Massachusetts). My younger brother, Fred - who by the way has been my greatest support for these blog entries - rode a red tractor in those days. Not only did Fred ride a red tractor, he took care of it. When Dad washed his car, Fred washed his tractor. And he tinkered with it too, lubricating, tightening bolts, buffing, etc. The rest of us enjoyed our assortment of tricycles and scooters, but that tractor stood out.
Anyhow, one day I recall looking over at Fred with his red tractor, and thinking….’he’s got it all figured out’. Granted, I was only 5 years old, but this was the general gist of what I was comprehending at the time. Fred was going to make it in this market-driven economy of ours. I knew right then that he had the drive and the wherewithal to be successful. And indeed he has been successful, running with his market savvy, and living his dream in a beautiful town, with a wonderful home and family.
But the true core of my thought process back in 1967 (which by the way was the same year as the release of John Wesley Harding) wasn’t really about Fred. It was about me. Because at the same time that I was thinking Fred had it made, I was also thinking, ‘holy crap where does that leave me? I have none of these inclinations. I don’t want a red tractor, and if I did have one, I wouldn’t want to buff it! I guess I’m screwed!’
Well, it has not turned out that way for me, thank goodness. Mom and Dad sensed my environmental leanings early on, and never tried to inhibit them. They also ran with Fred’s inclinations. For example, in our formative years, while Dad saw to it that Fred got his Wall Street Journal subscription, he paid for me to become a member of Greenpeace. The end result? Like Fred, I’ve also been blessed with a measure of success, although my journey has been a far different one, finding my niche as a computer mapping specialist (GIS) in the water resources branch of the US Geological Survey. The key for each of us though was that we followed the path of who we were. But as with any given Dylan album, it's far more complex than professional success. There are many other elements that contribute to us being successful at life.
This brings me back to “Dear Landlord” and particularly those beautiful lyrics near the end of the song, (which I also am using as my Master Blueprint title for this entry): “Now each of us has his own special gift. And you know this was meant to be true”. It was that particular set of lyrics that set off that memory. That moment in the back yard on Mill Street as a 5 year old was the first time I connected with this faith-based truism.
Regardless of any measure of success however, I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what I first began contemplating 50 years ago. I’m sure Fred is still figuring it out too. And so is Bob Dylan. We all are. It’s a never ending journey to master one’s own God given gifts. I’m pretty certain however, that the occasional “Dear Landlord” plea helps to move us in that general direction.
33. “Under the Red Sky” (27/0/2.6)
34. “Knocked Out Loaded” (24/1/2.25)
35. “Dylan” (13/0/2.222)
36. “Down In the Groove” (25/0/2.1)
37. “Christmas In the Heart” (34/0/2.0)