“All Along the Watchtower” is Bob Dylan’s best folk song. I don’t mean by this that it is the song that adheres closest, musically or lyrically, to folk traditions – there are dozens of songs from his early acoustic years which draw more explicitly from the musical forms and/or lyrical themes of traditional folk music. I don’t mean that it is his best song, either, though it is easily one of his most popular and enduring, and any list that attempts to catalogue Dylan’s greatest work would definitely have to include it. When I say that “All Along the Watchtower” is Dylan’s best folk song, I mean that, more than any other Dylan song, it opens itself up wonderfully to interpretation, meshing effortlessly with the musical styles of a diverse range of artists. I have yet to hear a bad version of it, and no two are alike.
Not that there isn’t a lot to love about Dylan’s original studio cut. Quiet, moody, and atmospheric, its focus is on enigma and its own mystery. The original track – released in 1967 on the John Wesley Harding album – is radically different from the version that Jimi Hendrix would make famous six months later. Hendrix’s cut is a tempest, Dylan’s is a fog: the two versions are opposites, reverse sides of the same coin, even down to the number of players in each band. In the wake of the success of the Hendrix cover, the Dylan original remains largely forgotten; even Bob himself has been making an electric romp of the song as long as he’s been playing it live, with varying results. However, I’ve attached it above, as it’s worth a listen.
Debating which version is superior is, I believe, somewhat pointless. One might as well try to decide whether he prefers noise or ambience. Each version of the song – and not just Dylan’s or Hendrix’s, but every version – presents its own vision of apocalypse. Death may come with a bang or a whimper – or a groove, perhaps (XTC), or a creeping fury (Dave Matthews Band) – but it will still come. Or, due to its circular nature, perhaps it has already. I can say with some confidence that Bob should not be trying to copy Jimi Hendrix’s version of his own song. Ever since he went electric, live Dylan has been about reinvention – part of the pleasure of listening to him is hearing how the arrangements of his songs have evolved over the years, changing as his relationship to them changes. “Watchtower” hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, though. He’s played it pretty much the same way ever since the Isle of Wight concert. Even the MTV Unplugged version is a rock-and-roll song.
The studio version remains, though, in spite of all of this: and isn’t that the point of recording songs in the first place?