The Bob Dylan Canon, Part 4: John Wesley Harding

Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant to the United States.  He was a member of the IWW and was tried and executed for murder based on flimsy evidence, at best.  There is some belief that he had a rock solid alibi for the murder, in that he was in bed with a married woman, but he refused to name her, as her reputation would have been destroyed, so he went to his death instead. 

Before his execution, he traveled widely around the country, organizing for the IWW by writing songs and poems and giving speeches.  Although no recordings exist of Joe Hill singing any of his songs (at least as far as I know), his songs used the melodies of folk songs and other popular songs.  Does that sound like anybody we know?

Hill was lionized by the American Left after his death.  Alfred Hayes wrote a tribute poem to him, entitled I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill.  Hayes’ poem sets forth the simple proposition that while Joe Hill may be dead, the ideas which he lived for did not die with his execution.  The poem was later set to music by Earl Robinson, and that song entered the American folk song canon, and was recorded by artists ranging from Paul Robeson to Luke Kelly of the Dubliners. Here is Joan Baez performing the song at Woodstock.

Interestingly, I am unable to find a version recorded by Bob Dylan.  There is certainly no officially released version, and I cannot find a bootleg version either.  If anybody has a copy of Dylan singing the song, get in touch with me and I will post it.

While Dylan may not have recorded the song, he is clearly aware of it, and it is an important influence on I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine from John Wesley Harding.  The opening lines of Dylan’s song (“I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine/Alive as you or me”) are a direct allusion to the Alfred Hayes poem, and Dylan’s melody is eerily similar to Earl Robinson’s melody.  Anyone steeped in the American Folk Song tradition and/or anyone deeply involved in the American Left would have picked up the allusion immediately, but as Dylan continued singing and his lyrics took on a decidedly different meaning, there was probably a collective raising of the eyebrows and a “WTF?”* sigh.

Dylan’s Saint Augustine, like Joe Hill, has been put to death, but whereas in the Joe Hill song there were external forces (the “coppers”) who killed him, Saint Augustine was put to death by the singer and others like him.  There is a general assumption that Joe Hill’s execution was unjust, but there is no such assumption for Saint Augustine.  If anything, there is apathy as Saint Augustine is “tearing through these quarters/In the utmost misery” pleading his case.  And while the ideals Joe Hill lived for did not die with him, Saint Augustine sees that he must make the arguments in death that he made in life as “No martyr is among ye now/Whom you can call your own/So go on your way accordingly/But know you’re not alone.”  The song ends with the singer awake now and angry at the role he played in Saint Augustine’s death.

Dylan’s Saint Augustine is not lionized and is not even recognised as a Saint (secular or otherwise) the way Joe Hill is recognised as such in his song, and whereas Joe Hill is concerned with the plight of the working class, Saint Augustine calls out to Kings and Queens as well as unnamed martyrs.  This may be a reflection of my very real bias towards all things Dylan, but there is just more to think about with Saint Augustine than with Joe Hill, no matter how tragic Hill’s story may be.

*I recognise that ‘WTF’ did not mean ‘What the fuck?’ in 1967, just roll with it.

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2 Responses to The Bob Dylan Canon, Part 4: John Wesley Harding

  1. john koehne says:

    That snow is REALLY annoying

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