‘All Along the Watchtower’ was written and recorded by Bob Dylan. It appeared on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding and is now considered to be one of his greatest compositions. It has since appeared on numerous compilations of his music. The song ranked as number 47 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It has been covered by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and The Dave Matthew’s Band.
This song, as well as all those that featured on the album, was written in 1966 while Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident.
The song describes in sparse detail the lives of a joker and a thief. They are outside the walls of society and they know it. The former expresses concern over their life and what value there is in what they accomplish. Dylan’s thief immediately calms him down and directs this short storyline towards its conclusion. The two riders are arriving at a walled castle of some kind. There, in a suspenseful atmosphere, something is going to happen.
You can read the complete lyrics here.
Structure and Literary Devices
‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Bob Dylan is a short, three verse song that follows a simple rhyme scheme. It is considered to be more restrained and sparse than much of Dylan’s music. But, it is filled with interesting images and allusions, as well as several other literary devices. These include but are not limited to anaphora, caesura, and alliteration.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘All Along the Watchtower’. When reading over the lyrics or listening to Dylan sing the original version, it is clear that there is a great deal of meaning behind the poignant images of the joker and the thief, the metaphor of plowmen and businessmen, as well as the references to towers, princes, and distant landscapes.
Dylan also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “There” at the beginning of the first two lines. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, Dylan is using the two characters and their inner conflict to allude to the larger very real conflict at the heart of society.
‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Bob Dylan contains a meaning that is not stated properly in the song. By the first line of the third stanza, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view”, it becomes clear what the poem is all about. The princes are keeping an eye on the borders of their kingdom. The last line says, “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”. It refers to impending danger. Before anything becomes clear the poet ends this poem, allowing readers to imagine what would have happened in the plot. In the first line, the joker and the thief’s conversation are also mysterious. This conversation somehow points to the same tension for which the princes are waiting on the watchtower. In the end, it seems that everyone in the poem is waiting for something to happen. But nobody can tell what is going to happen in Dylan’s poem.
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
In the first lines of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ Dylan writes about two characters, a “joker” and a “thief”. He puts the reader right into the middle of a conversation, a technique known as in medias res. The first statement is one of desperation. It is of the moment, something that must be resolved but is lacking in definition. The reader or listener has no idea where “here” is or what these two characters are doing.
The thief and the joker are examples of archetypes. They represent a larger population through the use of this single simple label. These two are both outsiders, separate from the regular population by their professions and natures.
The joker continues the speaker, raising several grievances and explaining what it is that he wants to escape from. There is “confusion,” the joker says. Everything is jumbled up and he can’t sort how what’s right in life. The joker brings up images of businessmen who drink his “wine” or benefit from his hard work. This metaphor connects to both the joker and the thief who are, as their labels suggest, outside the norm.
The businessmen and the plowmen are used to represents the established order, the leaders of society who decide what gets done and who benefits. Dylan is encouraging a listener to make these connections but he is not explicitly stating what each element of the song means.
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”
In the second verse of ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ the thief replies to the joker. It appears that he sympathizing with much that the joker has said but he’s not quite so hopeless. He feels that the two of them are not as confused as the joker thinks. They’re on the right path and its not their fate to have a joke of a life.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
In the final four lines of ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ the imagery gets stronger. Dylan writes about a “watchtower,” princes, and the “women” who “came and went”. This is the location that the thief and the joker are heading towards. The last time describes them as the “Two riders”. They’re on their way to the tower in amongst a dark and suspenseful atmosphere. There is a “wildcat” growling in the distance and the “wind” begins to howl in the last line. This is an example of foreshadowing.
The two main characters are on one side of the castle/walled town, and the princes and women are on the other. This represents the two very different sides of life. There is a lot that can be read into the imagery and atmosphere of the poem. A listener or reader might ask themselves, what is this coming confrontation? Is it a revolution of some kind? Or part of society overthrowing the other? Perhaps the two riders are on there a way to sort out a better life for themselves? What kind of conversations will they have with the princes? Finally, what happens if the established order of workers and those who benefit is overthrown?