As I sought inspiration for this week’s allusion, I put on a record in the hopes of stirring up biblical imagery from music. My record of choice was Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, released in 1968. As the album spun towards its end, the track “All Along the Watchtower” brought the proper inspiration to the mental surface.
The song was originally written by Bob Dylan, and has quite a few references to the Bible that require an intimate knowledge with the text. The lyrics are as follows:
“There must be some kind of way out of here,”
Said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Business men – they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the wine
Nobody of it is worth.”
“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’s getting late.”
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came
And went bare-foot servants too
Outside in the cold distance
A wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl, hey.
In particular, the lines “All along the watchtower/Princes kept the view” have a direct correlation to the Bible. Isaiah 21:5-9 has the exact imagery used in this song:
“Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed. …And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”
As we know, Isaiah focused on the wickedness of idolatry that had been inspired by Babylon. Idolatry had plagued the Israelites all throughout Deuteronimistic History which resulted in one thing—punishment. These verses warn the people of the Protagonist that Babylon will fall and that all of the Babylonian gods will be destroyed; in essence, this warning is to stop the punishment of Babylon from including the Israelites. Like the biblical verses, the song is suggesting that people need to be aware of idolatrous thinking; however in the lyrics, I do not think idolatry is necessarily in the religious sense, but in the sense of morality. The song is suggesting that people should take a stance morally and to be aware of the dangers that exist before they are punished like those who have morally fallen before them.
In addition, the biblical verses mention two horsemen, or as the song so eloquently puts it, “two riders” that “were approaching”. To me, these riders were most obviously foreshadowing to other riders referenced in the Bible. The ones I think of are from Revelations, as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first two riders in the Bible are the White Horseman, who traditionally represents conquest/evil/the Antichrist and the Red Horseman who represents war. I believe the song is suggesting that if the listeners fail to heed the song’s warning about their moral stances, that evil and war shall come to decimate them. At the time period of this song, this explanation would make perfect sense; America was embroiled in the middle of the Vietnam War, and Dylan is purposefully pointing out the dangers that lack of public morality has caused. The beginning of the song had also introduced an apocalyptic warning theme with the lines: “So let us not talk falsely now/The hour’s getting late.” These lines support the apocalyptic theme by stating that time is running out, suggesting an end to the time the public has to take a moral stance against evil and war.
Without knowing these biblical verses, the listener would have a hard time deciphering the true meaning of Dylan’s complex song. Dylan used this imagery to support his anti-war and anti-evil message that encouraged the public to be brave enough to have a moral stance. In conclusion, both Dylan and Isaiah’s messages hold true; proper morality should keep us from punishment. As a support to this warning, I quote Malcom X, a man from the same era as Dylan:
“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”