What does All Along the Watchtower mean?

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Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower Meaning

Song Released: 1968

Covered By: Jimi Hendrix (1968)

All Along the Watchtower Lyrics

"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."



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    Sep 29th, 2010 9:39pm report

    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...


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    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.


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    Mar 21st, 2016 3:32pm report

    A recent article claims that Dylan wrote this song about Isreal and the issues it had since becoming a State in 1948. It could be one more song he has written about his Religious Homeland


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    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.


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    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.


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    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.


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    Mar 19th, 2014 3:09am report

    "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.
    Businessman they drink my wine,
    Plowman dig my earth
    None will level on the line, nobody offered his word, hey"

    Joker (Maker of Dreams/Capitalism) wants to stop telling jokes (lies) intended to keep all the orphans (you) happy. She (Whore of The Earth) consorts with everyone. She just wants people to level on the line (The Law) & offer their word (commitment) to her.

    "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"

    The Kind Thief (Government) who manages the power & property of all orphans. Many there among them (The Order) who feel life is a joke, are orphans that know the joke (Promise of Salvation) for what it is & that they are orphans. They cease speaking falsely (drop the act for a moment & get serious) because the hour is getting late (Religious & Hedonistic Folk are destroying the world).

    All along the watchtower
    Princes kept the view
    While all the women came and went
    Barefoot servants, too

    The Tower is Government. The Women are Nations. The Barefoot servants are Slaves.

    Outside in the cold distance
    A wildcat did growl
    Two riders were approaching
    And the wind began to howl
    *buisness man there, drink my wine,
    Come and take my herb.

    Out of nowhere, the Lion heralds the two strange riders (Templar?) & they drink of the wine of The Joker.

    This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway


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    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.


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    Apr 23rd, 2012 4:57pm report

    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.


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    Mar 12th, 2012 3:39pm report

    The wild cat would be satan. The two riders would be jesus, and the thief heading for paradise


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    Feb 15th, 2012 2:59pm report

    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


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    Feb 11th, 2012 2:42pm report

    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.


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    Dec 12th, 2011 12:48am report

    It's about leaving a mental hospital.


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    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 .....


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    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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    Nov 23rd, 2011 11:53pm report

    As the song opens, the thief comforts the Joker by telling him that, while many people think that life is but a joke, he and the Joker know that it is very wrong to consider life to be nothing more meaningful than that. So the first 'puzzle' in the song is: Why does the thief think that the Joker would find it revolting to equate life with jokes? Don't Jokers like jokes?

    Who is the Joker, anyway?

    In Tarot cards, the Joker card represents Jesus Christ, holding him up to ridicule as a fool. This corresponds to those who mocked Jesus before and during his crucifixion.

    As the song begins, Jesus is on the cross next to the 'good thief' who recognizes Jesus as the Savior. Jesus is suffering his moment of doubt, talking about a "way out of here", "too much confusion", and complaining about the unworthy people he is about to sacrifice himself for ("Businessmen" who "drink his wine", "plowmen" who "dig his earth", and others who don't know "what any of it is worth".)

    The thief reminds Jesus of their fate, using religious language ("Let us not talk falsely now"). He says that "the hour is getting late", that is, they are near death, but a death that will lead to resurrection and Judgment Day.

    The final stanza shifts the scene to a city guarded by prices in a watch tower. To understand the song, it is necessary to understand the reference to the ancient city of Babylon (whose name means "confusion").

    Babylon has long held a place among many religions as a symbol of excess and immoral power. Many references are made to Babylon in the Bible, both literally and allegorically.

    The people in Babylon had believed that they were safe from attack because the city was protected, according to the historian Herodotus, by two sets of inner and outer walls. The fall of Babylon came suddenly when the Medes and the Persians overran the city in a night attack in 539 B.C., attacking during a festival celebrated by the city's lords, so that the normal watch kept on the walls was not observed.

    The imagery in the song's final stanza regarding the "Watch Tower" and the "Princes" come from a biblical reference in Isaiah to the fall of Babylon:

    Isaiah: 21-5

    "Prepare the table,
    watch in the watch-tower,
    eat, drink:
    Arise, ye princes,
    and anoint the shield."

    So, putting it all together, we have this:

    Christ (mocked as a 'Joker' by unworthy people) and the thief are dying on the cross. After their death and Resurrection, Judgment Day is at hand, as intuitively sensed by nature itself ("A wildcat did growl. . .The wind began to howl"). Christ and the thief symbolically return ("Two riders were approaching") and destroy the city of man in an Apocalypse for its worldly excesses.

    The song is a parable, a warning, about the type of life we choose to live. That choice, often made thoughtlessly and treated lightly, is not a joke; instead, deciding whether or not to follow the path of God is the most serious decision we have to make.

    Some puzzles in the song remain. Note that the Joker (the Christ figure in my analysis) is speaking the language of a street person ("I can't get no relief") and is very agitated, while it is the thief who is "kindly", and who is talking in religious language (talking about "fate" and saying things like "let us not talk falsely now"). The identities of the Joker and the thief appear to be reversed. Perhaps this identity-reversal is part of the "confusion", or perhaps Dylan is saying that even a "common thief" can understand the righteous true path of God, something that totally eludes the "elite Princes" in society.

    By the way, it is worth noting that in the version of this song recorded by Jimi Hendrix, Hexdrix musically depicts the death and resurrection after the second stanza by a falling and then rising guitar sound (it sounds like a metal spring dropping down and then bouncing back up). Hendrix then uses the ethereal sound made by a wah-wah petal to evoke the ascension of Christ into Heaven. Also, in the Hexdrix version, as the Apocalypse takes place (after all stanzas have been sung), Henxdrix plays a rising scale, culminating in a single high note played rapidly and repeatedly. This provides a "picture", in music, of the Apocalyptic events taking place, without having any explicit description of it in the lyrics.

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