John Wesley Harding was released in late 1967, the first work heard by the outside world for about 18 months since the release of Blonde on Blonde. It’s also the first Dylan music heard by the general public after the motorcycle accident in which there were varying reports about the severity of Dylan’s injuries. The sparse sound of the record must have been startling as the only musical accompaniment was Charlie McCoy’s bass and Kenny Buttrey’s drums and occasional pedal steel guitar from Pete Drake. This lean backing serves to highlight Dylan’s writing, singing, and exemplary harmonica work. There aren’t any musical distractions on John Wesley Harding, it’s all on Dylan.
In hindsight, we know that Dylan had been experimenting with sound and lyric writing during The Basement Tapes period (explored here and here so far on Recliner Notes), which had not been heard by Dylan fans as of yet, as bootleg recordings such as Great White Wonder would not emerge until 1969. After the psychedelic outbreak seen in the musical world in 1967 including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience among many highlights from that year, the stripped down sound of John Wesley Harding would influence his contemporaries. Subsequently, we see a “return to basics” approach similar to John Wesley Harding, including Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones and The White Album by The Beatles. Though there was plenty of studio experimentation in those albums, acoustic guitar music was at the center of the musical method.
The songs on John Wesley Harding have a deliberate method in the composition. Dylan told Tony Glover in an 1971 interview that “The songs of John Wesley Harding were all written down as poems, and the tunes were found later.” This can be seen in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” as a writerly gesture is evident in the song as opposed to, say, “Crash on the Levee” written the year before as a blues-based song to be sung, rather than as a poem. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is well-composed with a strong beginning, middle, and end.
Saint Augustine, the main character of the song, is a seminal figure in Christian philosophy and learning. This famous excerpt from his Confessions resonates well with “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”:
“Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.”
In Confessions, Saint Augustine is documenting his conversion and outpouring of devotion to God. As opposed to “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” in which Dylan’s subject is not God, but rather Saint Augustine himself. There’s a filter for Dylan, a step removed from giving over himself to God as Saint Augustine has. Consider the second verse of the song:
“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”
In this verse, Dylan is imagining new words for Saint Augustine, inventing a quotation for him which still provides the same lessons shared in the excerpt above from Confessions: the assurance of not being alone when accepting the grace of God. But the interesting figure for Dylan is not God, but rather Saint Augustine himself, the writer, the explainer, the one who is doing the telling and crying “in a voice without restraint.” In Confessions, Saint Augustine says that it was God crying aloud and forcing “open my deafness.” For Dylan, he is more attracted to the writer, who pulls him into God.
The third verse of the song shifts this attraction to a horrible end:
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried
Dylan describes Saint Augustine as having “fiery breath” which connects to Confessions when Saint Augustine says that after accepting God, he burned for God’s peace. The narrator of the song says the voice of flames of Saint Augustine is too much and that he joins with a mob to put Saint Augustine to death. Earlier Saint Augustine had told the narrator and the assembled crowd that “No martyr is among ye now / Whom you can call your own.” The crowd decides that a martyr is required and so chooses the one with “fiery breath” to be put to death.
It’s too much for the narrator. This action causes him to awake from the dream, confused, in fear, and filled with self contempt and self pity. This feeling of fear, which is wrapped up in so many other emotions, is actually the theme of the album, either consciously when Dylan was writing the album or eventually became how Dylan saw John Wesley Harding in retrospect. In a Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott in November 1978, Dylan said,
“John Wesley Harding was a fearful album–just dealing with fear [laughing], but dealing with the devil in a fearful way, almost. All I wanted to do was get the words right.”
“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is the song on John Wesley Harding which best exemplifies Dylan’s thoughts about that album.
Above, I talked about Dylan and the narrator of the song are one step removed from God; they are addressing Saint Augustine instead of going to God directly as Dylan would about a decade after the recording of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Even in focusing on Saint Augustine, he creates another filter by placing his interactions as a dream. The song isn’t “I Saw St. Augustine,” it’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” By framing the song as a dream, it forces the narrator to contend with his own fear and resulting self-contempt.
Dylan has returned to “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” many times in concert. In addition to a gorgeous duet of the song with Joan Baez on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in Montreal which ends on a mysterious chord, the version that stands out the most is the first time he played the song live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. Similar to the approach discussed in the Recliner Notes post about the performance of “Highway 61 Revisited” at the same concert, this performance of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is a transformation. The whole accompaniment by The Band is a good time and Robbie Robertson’s guitar work especially stands out. The song sounds as if it should have a home with Basement Tapes performances. Dylan is in full countrypolitan voice sounding like the good reverend Hank Williams. They even attempt a key change before the last verse, a maneuver rarely employed by Dylan. Background vocals by The Band join Dylan for the last line of the song and then the singers go ahead and repeat the last line for good measure. The reading of the line converts the song from the stark, fearful reading heard on John Wesley Harding to one of a weirdly jubilant celebration. It’s a bizarre mutation, but the performers find a unique reading of the song.
Image: conversion of saint augustin, Fra Angelico and workshop, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons