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August 10, 2009


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Thanks for this great reflection on the song. It is an endlessly fascinating and poignant song to me. Your interpretation of the "Ironsides" reference is very interesting -- I'd never figured why Dylan was using that particular term. I don't know if I'd say that Dylan really ever embraced Puritanism, as such, but that's another discussion.

Every one knows "All Along The Watchtower," but I wonder if "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" is really the greatest song on "John Wesley Harding." Well, it's not like anyone really has to choose, thankfully.

The song is clearly not written from the point of view of God. More likely the speaker is a Native American, and the immigrant is the white-come-lately to these shores.

I've always interpreted the verse "his heaven is like Ironsides" much more literally, i.e., "Impenetrable", "Foreboding".

Of course the song is also said to have spawned from Dylan's strained relationship with his manager Albert Grossman.

Fascinating, as usual, Lawrence. Thanks for the insight. I think you might be reading too much into the anti-Puritan theory, though. To me, there is a fugitive innocent strain that is the cohering theme of this album, perhaps best epitomized in the song about the guy condemned in the courtroom but exonerated by God. This same theme is encapsulated in the album title, which cleverly combines the name of the greatest Protestant evangelist since Paul with that of a notorious outlaw. In a more sublime form, we can see the ultimate massacre of the Innocent in "St Augustine", where Dylan is reduced to tears at the thought of (a thinly disguised) Christ being led out to death. (Augustine, remember, was not a martyr)
As for "Watchtower", I see the allusion to Isaiah 21 : 5 to 9 (The King James version gives the most suggestive translation - "A lion!!"), again suitably disguised, since Dylan, to (mis?)quote him (from memory), had said sometime prior to this that he had no wish to die by the hacksaw blade - another clear allusion to Isaiah (Jewish tradition has it that he was sawn in 2 in a tree trunk).
Keep up the excellent work, Lawrence. Your optic of respect towards the poet is clearly giving you rare perpective.

Thanks everyone for writing. Sean C. is right to use caution in applying the label "Puritan." Roberto's reading is sensible to me. I'm just stuck because of the capital "I." Anth accurately points out the potential dangers of reading too much into the song. I'm always aware of it. Anth's notion of a "fugitive innocent strain" makes great sense to me, particularly for many of the other songs in the album. I plan to write about "Watchtower," and so let me just say that Anth's biblical citations are the same ones I see in the song.


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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This Way Out

by T.P.Winch

Ringfinger was nervous
Pinky terrified
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.



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