A prophet of cultural change – Bob Dylan at 80

‘Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl’.


When I hear those words sung I often get goose bumps. There is something magical, mysterious and eerie about them, as they feature right at the end of the song. There is no more. There is no ‘and then...’ You know they are coming and there is no next line, apart from the song’s title fading out. It’s like a scene from the Lord of the Rings, where riders are coming over a desolate plain, hooded and faceless. What’s their news? What will they do? Will all be well?


Bob Dylan is 80 years old this week and his song ‘All along the watchtower’ from which these lyrics are taken, is the song he has performed live more than any other song in his back catalogue. For what reason is not clear, and if you were to ask, and get a reply, you would likely receive an equally enigmatic explanation.


Much has been written about Dylan lyrics over the 60 years of his career, and this song has received its own good measure of interpretation. Other lines in the song suggest that the watchtower is part of a castle with a resident prince and barefoot servants. Dylan’s sustained interest in spiritual matters suggests a link with Isaiah chapter 21 verses 5-9 which describes a watchtower and riders approaching, but who knows?


The song starts with the line ‘There must be some kind of way outta here’ and then’ there’s too much confusion’. It’s set in a conversation between a joker and a thief. Are the riders the answer, the onset of some resolution or certainty? Or are the riders the joker and thief looking to the castle for security? What seems to be shared by a number of commentators is that the song is all about cultural change. Something needs to happen to make a real difference to human life experience.


Dylan’s words, over time, have been powerful, inspiring, confusing, challenging and controversial. No doubt they will continue to be pored over the next 80 years as well. But in the 1960s in particular he seemed to speak for a generation eager for change, and to them the time was now. Arguably it still is.


For what is probably the best known version of the song, try listening to the 1968 version by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.


Look up the song title on YouTube and join the 190 million who have watched it already. Enjoy, and let your imagination run wild.

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