Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower Meaning
Song Released: 1968
Covered By: Jimi Hendrix (1968)
All Along the Watchtower Lyrics
"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."
Biblical in origin (but not with religious intent), the song likely can be more applied to Dylan's view of the loss of humanity and a general societal statement about our need to dominate and not appreciate. Basically, the song pulls verses from the bible centering on the crucifixion of Christ, the tower of babel, and the end of times. The song jumps around but weaves a story similar to the Biblical verses:
The Joker is Jesus, and the thief is one on the cross next to him. Businessmen (the disciples) drank Jesus's wine and "plowmen dug his earth," not understanding the value of what they'd been given. The thief then tells him that a lot of people take life for granted ("There are many here among us Who feel that life is but a joke"), but the joker and the thief have already been made to appreciate life (facing their mortality) that and they will not share the same fate as the "others".
The "watchtower" is a reference to the Tower of Babel, a story of man building an arrogant society in which nothing was impossible, building a tower into the heavens, uniting under one language, and generally not appreciating God. God, resenting their arrogance, smote them by striking them across the land, confusing their language (also the origin of the phrase "to babble").
The scene then shifts to a more apocalyptic relation. "Outside in the distance A wildcat did growl" is a foreshadowing and reference to a "wild beast." Two horses then appear in the distance ("I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! It's rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.") -- Death and Hades being the two riders.
Dylan resented society's arrogance and often sang of us losing our innocence and lack of appreciation for life. While I don't think of him as too religious, I do not see him lost on the allegories in the bible...
anonymous Nov 11th, 11:19pm report
Dylan masterpiece lyrically, Hendrix masterpiece musically.
Thanks be to God
Jimi Hendrix fully understood the meaning of this song and exalted it into the position it deserves in the musical community.
It must be frustrating to write as Dylan does and to have such straightforward lyrics so misunderstood; probably why he does not like to comment on them.
Seems obvious if you read the Bible; old and new testament.
The song is a conversation between Jesus and the devil.
Jesus is the thief, the devil is the joker
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, all of them along the line don't know what any of it is worth.
the devil is complaining to Jesus that there must be some way out of here, here being earth, he cannot get any relief, no satisfaction from the humans who use his earthly domain... all along the line refers to the human generational line since Noah, guess the devil expected more exaltation and credit than he has been getting..haha
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 stop talking falsely now, the hour's getting late.
The thief is Jesus. Mark chapter 13, watch I shall come as a thief in the night, the Joker is the devil. It is a conversation between the devil and Jesus. Jesus tells the Devil... stop getting excited you are not gonna sway me or get any symapathy. many on earth think life is a joke, one big party not taking their life or what came before or after them serious. The devil thought he made a good deal getting domain of the earth and Jesus did not take him up on the deal when he rejected the devils offer to have all the earthly materials and domain if He rejected his Father when he was tempted on the mount. So Jesus reminds the devil that this is not our fate, you made your deal there is no way out of it or here, so stop talking falsely, the devil is the master of lies and the hour is getting late is reminding the devil that his time of earthly domain is not going to last too much longer before Christs return to take back the earth through the promise of the Lord.
All along the watchtower princes kept the view, while all the woman came and went, barefoot servants too, outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl
This lyric refers to the watchers of Christs return, the Princes keep a vigil while the people come and go on their daily business protected by those who keep the Lords watch. barefoot servants represents a humbling due to an arrogant nation and people.
Two riders represent the start of the Apocalypse as told In Revelations of the great battle against the anti Christ (the devil) and Christs return to take dominion of his people and the Earth and to fulfill his Father's the Lord's promise.
the devil knows his time is short and Jesus is not letting him out of the deal.
Nobody could have written this so simply and clearly in my opin as Mr. Dylan
Thank you Mr.Dylan
anonymous Jul 29th, 7:26pm report
Let's get this out of the way right up front: anybody who thinks they can actually analyze Dylan lyrics with absolute certainty is either a liar or a fool. So, given that fact, I will now humbly take my shot at what I think this song is about.
The song is from John Wesley Harding, Dylan's first album after the motorcycle crash in 1966 that nearly killed him. One would imagine that Bob, stuck in his hospital room, spent a lot of time thinking deep thoughts. Thought not necessarily a man of faith at that time, surely religious matters worked their way into the mix.
The overall theme is Biblical in nature. I've read a lot of interpretations, and most agree that it has to do with Jesus and the two thieves hanging on the cross. But from there, they go off in all directions.
Several say the verses are deliberately out of order. The third verse should begin the song, followed by the first and second. This nicely sets up the “Two Riders” as the Joker and Thief, who come into town and get crucified.
Nice idea, but why would Dylan do that? No one has a good reason, instead resorting to the usual “Bob messing with our heads” excuse. He certainly was known to do that, but it's a cop out. With the right interpretation, the verses make perfect sense just as they are.
The song collapses the story of Christianity, past present and future, into a single scene. Jesus has been crucified, man has forsaken God, and Judgment Day is coming.
There must be some way out of here
Said the Joker to the Thief
The Joker is Jesus. Dylan was fond of card imagery, and the card usually represents a mysterious character (an image used again in Highway 61 Revisited)
Speculation: Why the Joker? Is He the wild card? Does His role change depending on the game?
Two thieves were crucified along with Jesus; one chose redemption and the other did not. We assume Jesus is talking to the "good" thief.
Jesus wants to get off the cross. What's the reason? He's not satisfied with the job He did. He knows what's coming (see last verse), and He wants to save these poor sinners while there's still time. He can't rest until his job is done. Hence:
There's too much confusion,
I can't get no relief
Businessmen they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
But none of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth
The Catholic holy sacraments, His blood and body, are used for mundane purposes. The wine (blood) is just a refreshment for businessmen. Wheat, the ingredients for the wafer (body), is grown by simple farmers for their own sustenance. This is a nice contrast: from the rich (businessmen) to the poor (plowmen), all ignore His message.
No reason to get excited
The Thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who think that life is but a joke
What an irony. Instead of the other way around, the Thief is telling Jesus to keep the faith. He admits that most of the population don't appreciate the holiness of life.
Why do the words "Joker" and "joke" appear so close in the song? Is there a connection? Maybe, but it could just be Bob reaching for a rhyme.
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
The Thief, being a mere mortal, may not really "get" Jesus. He thinks Jesus is afraid he'll be branded a sinner and punished. He tries to reassure Jesus that they'll be ok, because they'll be saved. But Jesus had better hurry up and get Himself straightened out, because they know what's coming.
All along the watchtower
Princes kept their view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too
Man thinks he rules the world. The people should look to The Princes for protection, not God. The Princes control both the good and the evil. "All the women" are the prostitutes, who represent evil (sexist, but it was 1967, after all). The "barefoot servants", i.e. humble servants of The Lord, are the pious, and the Princes think they control them as well. Why, just look how they took care of that troublemaker Jesus.
Outside in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
But trouble, Big Trouble, is on the way. Jesus' Daddy is coming and boy, is He pissed.
Things are getting ominous out there (the wildcat's growl). God's messengers, the Two Riders, come into view. The wind starts to howl. Judgment Day is at hand.
A note: in The Bible, God is never seen. Because His presence can not truly be comprehended by Mortal Man, He represents Himself by unusual occurrences of natural phenomena. A classic example is Moses and the burning bush. I mention this because God's voice is commonly described as emerging from "out of a whirlwind". Ending the song with the wind is a very nice metaphor. You Know Who is coming.
So that's about it. He packed quite a bit into those three little verses, didn't he?
A final disclaimer: This is Bob Dylan we're talking about, so what do I know? Maybe it's about baseball.
anonymous Mar 20th, 2016 3:41pm report
It's a song about Victor Frankenstein and his creature...the joker and the theif. Theme: don't play God.
anonymous Jan 3rd, 2015 1:31pm report
I think it works well to consder Dylan, who many considered somewhat of a profit, was usIng some biblical references to foretell of coming social change the new generation was bringing to the established society and power structure.
anonymous Jul 20th, 2014 7:43am report
The Joker is Dylan as an entertainer.The thief is time. Businessmen are the producers and all people who are making money off of his work. Common man are the fans who pay to see him entertain.The thief/time tells him stop talking falsely or stop complaining because he has becoming famous and immortalized. His songs will live for ever. But his time is running out the hour is getting late . Watchtower is the system. Princes is the government. Barefoot and pregnant are single or widowed women. Servants are the working poor. Wildcat roaring is the alarm
For the end of everything.The 2 riders; Death is coming and Hell shall follow.
anonymous Sep 24th, 2012 9:43am report
Its a play using spectacular imagery creation [ my favourite on a bob song ]on the interprtive nature of religious belief. It uses biblical imagery or sentences that are to those from historically judeo-christian backgrounds likely to conjure images of the horsemen of apocolepse, jesus and the thief on the cross, the scene immediatly after the crucifiction etc etc.
Beyond this simply my own interpretation is that It references the in justices of western society in which we live, the injust authourity of the powers that be in the watchtowers, the expliotation of the people by those with power in princes and businessmen. The forced acceptance of life as a joke in the face of these expliotations and religious or otherworldly influence we cant understand. However justice is in the western religious tradition in hand with the writers who come to analyse this situation, the bad cat growl omen and the horsemen of the apocolepse.
I think it reflects bob at this time studying judeo-christian tradition and wanting to believe in something and truly believeing in some coming justice but not being truly convinced of the christian interpretaion.
but primarily as an image inducing poem it produces for me haunting biblical and apolcoliptic imagery.
So, Dylan (the Joker) and Albert Grossman (his manager, the Thief) are in a car heading to the Columbia business offices in Rockefeller Center for new contract talks. Dylan can't stand the situation. He feels unappreciated and misused by the CBS bureaucracy.
"There must be someway 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."
His manager calms him down: "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 speak falsely now, the hour is getting late."
Then the scene shifts to the offices where they're expected, filled with junior execs, secretaries, etc. and the sirens of the city streets can be heard outside.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view, while all the women came and went, their foot-servants, too. Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching. The wind began to howl.
anonymous Mar 12th, 2012 3:39pm report
The wild cat would be satan. The two riders would be jesus, and the thief heading for paradise
while all the Religious comments have merit, i was at a dylan concert in1991. it was in Danbury,Ct. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Dylan was more talkative then i have ever heard before or after. Maybe it was because it was outdoors and the smell of burgers, etc, and a few illegal cigarettes made him talk. when the band started playing the intro Dylan said, this next song is from my prison years. it seemed to me that he was referring to the years when he lived in Woodstock, NY and fans would walk up to his door and start talking to him. the watch tower might have referred to the added security that would be needed until he moved the family back to NYC and they started pouring through his garbage. the joker is Dylan see American pie, and the thief were the press and fans who would follow him around like fleas on a dirty dog. He later sang another prison song "I shall be released" later in the show , introducing it as another prison song. as great as he is, the one thing he can never attain is privacy so in effect his whole life since '63 has been a prison for him
The Joker and the thief are the same person, who sees things from two different perspectives: 1) one who sees the absurdity of our system, totally corrupt and misled, wasting resources in a system that's run on greed, politics, nepotism and wastefulness, and 2) one who realizes that the system is all there is and like it or not, he has a stake in it and must use it to get what he can for himself and those he supports.
The princes keeping the view are those who own the most and have it under control, watching two characters; probably the joker and the thief approaching the storehouse of their wealth.
anonymous Dec 10th, 2011 12:40am report
The watchtower refers to the enochian watchtowers that flow from god ie earth ,air,fire,water .The wild cat growling is a refrence to 2 things 1st: jesus coming when the lion of judea constellation touches the divine cup 2ndly jesus and his father use a panther as a symbol,often confused with the lion beast that is one of the 7 gnostic archons led by the demi-urge.the panther(messiah archetype breaks the 7 seals and opens the way for the riders of the appocolypse .To find out more you would probably have to know a rabbi/enochian magician or gnostic .....
anonymous Dec 7th, 2011 12:54pm report
I would like to point out foremost that this is a bob Dylan song who when writing this was not of the christian faith . it is about capitalism and its war with communism the cold the riders at the end signify what he believed was the coming nuclear holocaust
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