Most people forget that music is just as much about telling a story than it is about expression of self. Lyrics often have a way of swaying the listener to hear what an artist has to say, leaving much of the detail of the music out. As Hans Christian Anderson once said, “where words fail, music speaks.” The key to most musical compositions, as opposed to lyrical compositions, is to tell a story people will remember. However, when lyrics sometimes tell literal stories, should that give the words a right to steal the significance and purpose away from the music? “All Along The Watchtower,” by Bob Dylan, is a special case. While the lyrics never change, every artist that covers it has their own interpretation of the story. Those interpretations are told through the music.
No one knows the true meaning behind the lyrical story. Some say Dylan wrote the song about two halves of himself after he got into a motorcycle accident. Others think that it was a story of traveling with Elvis; Dylan being the Joker and Elvis being the thief because he would have his music succeed by using works of African American music. There are also many references to the book of Isiah, quoting chapter 21 about the watchtower. Regardless of the meaning of the story, what overpowers everything is how the story is told.
When stories are told, they typically start at the beginning with some background, go through the meat of the middle, and reach an end. By following this process, every story becomes resolved. This is not the case here. The story starts with the dialogue between the joker and the thief. It is not until the end of the song that a chorus is reached, shedding light on some background of everything thus far. When analyzing the lyrics alone, it often feels that the chorus is misplaced. A resolution never occurs lyrically, but it leaves the listener with a feeling of wanting to replay the story immediately when it ends. This beautiful way of removing chronological order freezes the sense of time in the story and takes it away from the listener, leaving artists with the freedom of letting the music overpower the story with their own interpretations. Dylan’s original take on it was a folk ballad that did not see much of the limelight. As a folk song, the lyrics emphasized the story most. The listener is essentially listening to a verbal story with background music. It became best known when the story was retold by Jimi Hendrix.
Argued by most to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time, Hendrix was known for his exceptional talent in playing rock, blues and funk. He had a sound and style that, when heard, was almost always recognizable as his work. He released his version of “All Along The Watchtower” six months after Dylan’s original recording made its debut. Unlike Dylan’s recording, the song was more rock oriented and a little faster. Released in the right time, Hendrix’s version soared to the top of the charts. When listening to it, it sounds like there is no time to rest. The listener can feel like he or she is part of the story, part of the action of it all. This is mostly because the instruments are not resting while the lyrics are being sung. Every hit of the snare makes the listener feel a constant movement, the guitar reminding the listener that there is more going on than just a dialogue between two people. The most important part of this interpretation are the guitar solos. They are loud, wild, and present an “in your face” style of playing. Something is occurring in the story, something uncontrollable and is clearly noticeable. They act as obstacles to our characters in the story, a new one happening after every time they have a chance to say a few lines to each other.
Contrasting Hendrix’s action feel of the song, Prince converted it back into a ballad at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show. There is a significant difference though between Prince’s ballad and Dylan’s ballad. Prince slowed the song down as if the story was a warning rather than a story. He would sing the lyrics to the chorus and have little powerful guitar riffs that followed, as if it was emphasizing what he just said, or more than that, warning you with him of some form of consequence. One can imagine while listening to this version that the guitar solos played during the vocals are just as much speaking directly to the listener as the singer is. Suddenly the dynamic of the song shifted to a direction where the music kept attention on itself while also throwing focus to the words being said.
With these three versions, listeners feel three different experiences. Dylan told a story to the world as if reading it from a book. Hendrix pulled listeners into the story to experience the action. Prince explained the story to us as if it had just happened. In a situation like this, it is difficult to make an argument that the later versions of the songs were hijackings of the original because they brought something different to listeners’ ears; they brought their own views on that story. When something that recognizable happens in music, it is seen as a cover. A quote by Dylan said that since hearing Hendrix’s version, every time Dylan plays it, he does it almost as a tribute to Hendrix even though Dylan wrote the actual song. All stories might be the same, but to make it something memorable an artist must be able to tell it in his or her own way.
Bob Dylan’s (pay no attention to the video):
Prince (start at 5:30)