Song Analysis – “All Along the Watchtower” – Bob Dylan

[Part 3]

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

While all the women came and went, barefooted servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

[I think this will be the most challenging song analysis I have yet written. Even though this is a short song, its lyrics are mysterious and heavy with meaning. Those of you familiar with the song may have already noticed something odd. The lyrics are out of order here. Or are they? On the website SongMeanings.net, a user named “eyeland” cites an article in Crawdaddy by Paul Williams that compares this song to a Moebius strip. The first part that we hear begins, “There must be some way out of here.” However, in terms of the story the song is telling, the beginning is actually the third part, which begins, “All along the watchtower.”

Another user on SongMeanings, “belteshazzar” claims convincingly that Dylan was alluding to the Parable of the Tenants, a story found in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12.

Here is the Parable of the Tenants, copied from the New International Version of the Bible:

1He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

    6“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

    7“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

    9“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. (Mark 12:1 – 12:9)

The landowner – represents God

The vineyard – symbolizes the Kingdom of God

The tenants – represent Israel’s religious leaders and all who reject Christ

The servants – symbolize God’s prophets and faithful believers

The beloved son – represents Jesus Christ, peace be upon him (Note: I am not in any way supporting the belief that Jesus is the son of God. What I am saying here is that Christians believe he is the son of God.)

The princes that the song refers to could be any people with wealth and/or power. Women and barefoot peasants pass by. Some have argued that this refers to the Vietnam War because many of the Vietcong were poor farmers. Also Americans killed civilians, even women, during the war. However, I think there is no specific detail here that is exclusive to Vietnam and that this could refer to any society with upper and lower classes.

[Part 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.” 

[If one looks back to the Parable of the Tenants, it is the son who comes to the vineyard and sees men taking advantage of the situation. The joker here says “my wine” and “my earth,” so he seems to be playing the role of the son. Therefore many critics have concluded that the joker here is Jesus, peace be upon him. The thief could be the criminal who was executed along with Jesus in the Biblical story of the crucifixion.]

[Part 2] “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 thief tries to calm down the joker. He speaks of people who feel life is meaningless. One could call such people existentialists. The thief seems to think that many peopke have an existentialist phase but some mature out of it. He deems himself and the joker to be the kind of person who has grown beyond existentialism. If we are to believe that the joker is Jesus and the thief is a criminal, this exchange is quite unusual. The criminal is actually teaching Jesus a lesson rather than the other way around. He is trying to remind Jesus that even in the face of suffering, life has meaning. It seems odd for a criminal to be saying this to a messenger of God or even the son of God.

The last line here says, “the hour is getting late.” It makes more sense to end with this line than to end with the last line that comes in the song about the wind howling. This line makes the most sense if one interprets the joker as being Jesus. Interestingly, the thief says, “Let us not talk falsely now . . .” The obvious implication is that Jesus was lying when he spoke earlier about people stealing from the vineyard. But I don’t see a lie in his speech. The missing lie is one of the mysteries of this song. An entirely different theory of the song says the joker is Dylan himself and the thief is Elvis Presley. It is much easier to swallow that Dylan lied as opposed to Jesus lying.

Finally, when the thief says “the hour is getting late,” he is saying that the two of them are about to die.]

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  1. #1 by Nix on August 23, 2009 - 4:56 am

    I think you mean ‘Nihilist’ and not ‘Existentialists’. Honestly, you might want to check out what a term means before you use it.

    • #2 by asad123 on August 23, 2009 - 9:19 am

      I understand the difference between Nihilism and Existentialism. I interpret the idea that “life is but a joke” as Existentialism and not Nihilism and here is why. According to an online Philosophical Dictionary, nihilism means “Complete rejection of the existence of human knowledge and values or denial of the possibility of making any useful distinctions among things.” (http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/n9.htm#nihi). So a nihilist believes that one should not have values because it is impossible for humans to make useful distinctions between different items. Existentialism, however, means, “the “explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude” that begins with a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism with citations from Robert Solomon and D.E. Cooper) The idea of an absurd world is equivalent to the idea that life is all a joke. A joke has meaning. The nihilist sees life not as a joke, but as utter nonsense, from which no meaning can be legitimately derived.

  2. #3 by Clover on February 14, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    The Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan’s allusion to The Joker and the Thief can be further understood by considering the more recent Wolfmother song, “The Joker and the Thief.”

    I know what the song, “The Joker and the Thief” is about. The girl/woman referred to in the Wolfmother song as “her” has a name. She is real and alive and a girl. She grew up in a small subdivision called Clover lawn which is referred to in the song as “fields of clover”. She used to pick clovers there, she has a mother, father and brother there whom she loves very much. The joker is a spirit or demon or character under control of the Devil. The “thief” is a name that stands in as a designation or mask for the Devil. Jesus is not the “thief,” and the text from The Bible states that ‘he comes like a thief.’ Her story is a lot more interesting than the crude version I am going to give you in this blog but one day I will tell this story in greater detail, God willing.

    The girl enrolled at university in 2004 where she studied fine arts for four years. In that time she made many mistakes and prayed to God that she could be redeemed. While in school she painted glass buildings to complete her major in art and design. In her fourth year she met a boy who is not mentioned in the Wolfmother song but who helped to set her free. She loves the boy very much, she forgave everyone who ever hurt her and set things right that were wronged.
    In her fourth year of university she was awarded a commission to paint a mural which currently hangs in a medical research centre on campus. The girl asked God to help her paint the mural in a vain effort to save the world. Her eyes were opened and she was able to discern the evil in herself and her life. The truth set her free and the truth is named Jesus Christ. The difference between Lucifer and Jesus can be twisted to become very subtle, but I will make it clear that Lucifer is called” The Light Bringer” and that Jesus is The Truth and The Light. While she was painting the painting which is now titled “the Light we deserve,” she was confronted with “The Dark Knight” film and a glimpse of what is called the dark night of the soul; spirits or evil things of whatever sort came and spoke horrible lies to her. She chose not to believe the lies that the spirits spoke. She confronted the things that had spoken these lies to her and asked for their names. She was almost killed as a result because she could not defend herself alone. She was saved by Jesus Christ and by the boy through Jesus Christ.

    The truth is enough and the truth’s name is Jesus Christ. The girl and the boy discerned that we do not deserve the salvation we receive when Jesus died for our sins but I believe that I am the light that the boy deserves and he is the light that I deserve. This is a true story and the Wolfmother song is a perversion of this story. I do not believe that Wolfmother knows this story but rather they received inspiration and power which influenced them to write the song that portrays “the joker” and “the thief” as heroes just as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan did before them. When they are asking, “what would happen if they take her away?” they are describing the failed attempt to kill the girl. Furthermore, many songs and the movie, “The Dark Knight” are full of terrible lies which glorify villainy and heroics; such as the lie that Commissioner Gordon speaks at the very end of the film: “because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough… …sometimes, people deserve more.”
    The truth is good enough, he saved me.

  3. #4 by Metal Halide Lamp on November 24, 2010 - 1:41 pm

    i love bob dylan, he is one of the best singer songwriter ;;.

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