Analysis: Sound Check
"All Along the Watchtower" begins with those famous opening chords and a high-pitched harmonica solo, which sounds an old sign creaking on its hinges in the breeze. Like all the songs on John Wesley Harding, Dylan cuts right to the chase with the lyrics, backed up by a drumbeat that chugs along like a Union Pacific freighter through a Texas scrub plain. Though he sings the words at a slow and even pace, his voice has an edge of panic as he tells us the joker's anxious thoughts. He even lets his voice crack on the high notes. When he gets to verses 3 and 4, however, he becomes downright shrill, which fits the lyrics perfectly: this is the point where the joker complains that everybody is using his stuff. You want some cheese with that whine, joker? Then the harmonica joins in and starts whining, too. But once the thief starts talking, Bob can sing with confidence again.
Dylan's singing throughout the song is a seesaw changing in pitch from high to low, high to low. "Outside in the distance..." (high) "...a wildcat did growl" (low) "Two riders were approaching…" (high) "…the wind began to howl" (low). It's like he's teasing us with the promise of a climax – some kind of resolution to the song and its half-complete story – only to change his mind and keep us waiting in suspense. We're still waiting, Bob. The lyrics end on one at one of these low, mysterious notes. Then the harmonica comes back like the howling wind and starts rattling that old rusty sign nearly off its hinges, before petering out at last.
Now listen to Jimi Hendrix's cover, which, unlike Dylan's version, doesn't tease us into thinking we're about to get some kind of climax. This version is climax from start to finish. It begins with two huge drumbeats and has loud guitar solos all over the place. Instead of our steady Union Pacific drumbeat, it sounds like the train has come off the tracks and is now hurtling towards a nearby town. Hendrix keeps things loud and exciting all the way through, but near the end he kicks it up to another level. While Dylan sings the last verse in a low and mysterious tone, Hendrix shouts it near the top of his range, just before letting his guitar take over with one of the loudest and wildest solos in all of rock n' roll. This isn't just a howling wind: it's a hurricane.