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.
“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.]