Help the Poor
On Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” and Fortune’s Wheel
Stephen Hazan Arnoff
John Wesley Harding may have been Bob Dylan’s most highly anticipated album ever. Released in 1967 at the end of twenty months of public silence that included a motorcycle crash, it was also the most stylistically unexpected work of Dylan’s career. The album featured a smooth, country crooner voice accompanied by brushes skipping over drums, choppy parlor piano, the soft thump of upright bass, and unadulterated acoustic guitar and harmonica, a departure from the howling torrent of words and music of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. The deceivingly understated John Wesley Harding follows probably the best, or at least the most influential, hat trick of rock and roll recordings ever – and at times packs an even bigger punch.
The most potent element of John Wesley Harding is its narratives. Dylan gives us a collection of laconic stories about a place that sounds a lot like the towns and houses and courtrooms and streets across America. Except, as “the little neighbor boy” says of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, the combustible pair who carry an eponymous ballad at the heart of the album, “Nothing is revealed.”
There is unexplained violence in this world; fortunes inexplicably lost and won. Weeping, longing and carelessness one moment; friendship and falling in love the next. But despite a landscape of randomness that at times edges into cruelty, John Wesley Harding is distinguished by empathy for the poor that harkens back to an era long ago.
“More than the master of the house does for a poor man, the poor man does for a master of the house.” says Leviticus Rabbah, a 5th century collection of commentaries and musings relating toLeviticus, the biblical corpus from which the demand to take care of the poor with gleanings from every field first appears.
As the esteemed scholar Peter Brown has explained, the theological and political urges of early Christianity, which took place during the same time as the formation of Leviticus Rabbah, included radical new thinking about poverty that LR’s teaching captures well. While traditional Roman charitable culture directed people of means to assert their honor through investment in the infrastructure and beautification of the polis rather than supporting poor people, the visionaries of early Christianity focused on the responsibility of believers to take care of the individual poor through the stewardship of the Church. This was one of many social modes which channeled political power to a religious community that within several centuries dominated the Roman world. It also transformed basic human values so deeply that the results of its vision have remained at the heart of the human story until today. In Late Antiquity the call of poverty – both choosing it and responding to it – became a means not only of wrestling with social policy, but accessing and even becoming one with the divine.
“Fortune is a constantly turning wheel,” Leviticus Rabbah says. Like the founders of the Church, masters of rabbinic tradition drew upon biblical and folk traditions to shape empathetic communities. With fortune ever turning, the haves and have-nots were called to humility and community. As Frankie Lee says in his ballad with Judas:
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road
Bob Dylan had ducked out of public sight and into a basement with the Band as the generation for whom he had been a singular inspiration and inscrutable critic was peaking in its explosion of conceptions of popular culture and spiritual practice. A little music festival found its way to Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969 in a large part because Dylan had made his home in Woodstock a few years before. But Dylan never played Woodstock and did not have much to say about it either. So whether it was intended or not, John Wesley Harding served as Dylan’s answer to many of the questions with which the Woodstock generation was destined to wrestle even before they were fully framed.
It’s said that Dylan had a large stand with an open Bible in the center of his living room in his Woodstock home. I like to think that while jamming with the Band and living the country life, Dylan had some Bible on his mind too; that through a partially biblical lens Dylan took on morality and mortality – themes embodied so deeply by thinking about poverty – as a way of sending the emergent “me” generation a message to meditate upon.
John Wesley Harding begins with its namesake as a hero:
John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
Nearly every song on the record has a main character similarly shrouded in gray – from the Landlord to Tom Paine. For me though, the real hero of the album – and perhaps the voice most resonant with the musing on morality and mortality of Dylan himself – appears in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” the third track:
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold
“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried
Like the shapers of Leviticus Rabbah, Saint Augustine, who was a Church Father of endless influence, thought and taught more than 1500 years ago. Something about this era and its attempt to construct a coherent moral universe after the destruction of the Temple – formerly the heart of Judeo-Christian spiritual order – vibrates throughout John Wesley Harding.
As Dylan’s narrator looks at himself in the reflection of the glass, the world of his Woodstock backyard returning his glance is one of suffering and plight, a world of the poor and the downcast, a world removed from the mystique of the Summer of Love that preceded Woodstock by two years. This is cause for weeping at first, but it is also the ultimate source of the teachings that emerge from the album – stories of humility, empathy, and resignation – that people will very much need later.