Structural Phenomena As Observed in ‘All Along the Watchtower’
The song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was written by Bob Dylan and is featured on his album entitled John Wesley Harding which was released in December of 1967. The track only took 5 takes to record and in the end take 3 and take 5 ended up getting spliced together for the master. When listening to the recording, it is obvious that very minimal instrumentation was used. This is due to the fact that Dylan was trying to get back to his folksy roots and move away from the sound of his 3 previous electric albums. The song has an ABABAB structure where the Verse section (A) lasts for 16 bars, or 2 phrases of 8 bars. The Channel section (B) last for 8 bars and features Dylan on harmonica. The actual instrumentation of the song consists of Dylan’s vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica with bass guitar and drum accompaniment. The feel of the song creates a forward movement with a fairly simple steady folk drum beat (that only changes once throughout the whole song, bass drum pattern changes at 1:30) and the bass playing the root and function notes of the chord. The song starts with a 4 bar intro of guitar, then drums, electric bass and harmonica come in to support the main focus of the song, which happens to be Dylan’s lyrics. The song is unique in that the lyrics never repeat themselves and there is no chorus. Also, the main chord progression, C#m-B- remains the same throughout the entire song, which also reflects how important the lyrics are intended to be understood.
In contrast, Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was released on the album ‘Electric Ladyland’ in September of 1968. Hendrix actually heard Dylan’s version of the song on January 21, 1968 when he was starting the recording process of the album at Olympic studios in London. Jimi’s engineer for the album, Eddie Kramer, noted that Jimi started working on recording the song soon after he heard it. Session player Dave Mason was in the studio and played the acoustic rhythm parts for the song. During the session, Jimi’s regular bass player at the time, Noel Redding, had some issues with how things were being handled and ended up leaving. Jimi took up the electric bass and played the part for the recording we hear today. Kramer’s final mix of the song happened 5 days later, but when Jimi listened back to it, he felt that it needed something more. Jimi went on to overdub guitar parts during June, July and August, at a studio on New York called the Record Plant. The master tapes of the song moved from the original 4 track to a twelve track, and finally to a sixteen track recorder. This allowed Hendrix the time and opportunity to swap out solo and go back and forth between takes.
Jimi’s version contains an extended solo section, a revision of the guitar rhythm from the one Dylan had created, dense instrumentation and many more differences. The rhythm motif of the piece happens a little differently in Hendrix’s version, with a slower half time feel with the second chord landing on the second beat, while the Dylan rhythm emphasizes the the change on the ‘and’ of 3. This difference creates a much heavier feel. Along with the big drum fills, Jimi practically playing solo bass lines, newly invented guitar tones, auxiliary percussion, and many overdubs, the whole sound is plain huge and heavy sounding.
Many of the sounds Jimi had in his mind when producing and composing songs such as ‘All Along the Watchtower’ can be traced back to the principals of African music. Many of these same principals can be used to explain theoretically what Jimi was hearing when he chose the rhythms and voicing he used in his songs.
Much like what is heard in African music, Jimi uses interlocking pitches and rhythms as individual parts; when these parts are joined together, we get the powerful sound that we hear in songs such as ‘All Along the Watchtower. An example of this can be heard in the into of the song when the vibra-slap is used to fill the quarter note rests. The song keeps the energy moving forward in a much more consistent manner, rather than letting the momentum drop with space in between the rhythmic hits. Joined with
Buddy Miles playing tom fills between the rests, the prominence of the two percussion instruments create a very powerful effect. The giant sound is then continued with tambourin panned to the opposite side of the vibra-slap, consisting of constant eighth notes to make an even denser mix.
The next quality of sound that can be traced to African music is the songs ‘buzzy’ timbre. Hendrix was one of the first to use very high amp levels when recording electric guitar which caused harmonics to be produced which are very pleasing to the human ear. The performance that we are hearing is very clean, though most of the audio is overdriven to the point where it sounds sweet and inviting. I think that the reverb and delay that was used in the song helps to accent the overdriven sound because it feels like the dirtyness continues throughout the whole song as every instrument is super wet as though it is being sustained. Jimi’s solos never seem to end with this type of mixing treatment.
During the extended improvisational period of the song, each phrase of Jimi’s solos seem to be independent of each other. There is a call and response type feel to what the guitar is playing. The guitar is being panned from left to right and then back again to embellish the technique and create an open rhythmic sound similar to that of a hocket, or a back and fourth melody line between instruments. In the case of Jimi and his virtuosic guitar playing, he can do it by himself.
Throughout the entire Hendrix version, the same 4 bar chord progression is heard for the whole song. Though it might seem redundant on paper, the song is kept on its ‘toes’ by including tasteful variations of the ostinato rhythm throughout. The way that the chord progression starts out in the song is very different as the song progresses. Right away at 10 seconds in, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern expands from the rigid hits that we hear in the beginning. Jimi also does strong electric guitar strums in between vocal phrases to add emphasis and continuation to the lyrical line. I believe that the guitar solos that separate the verses could actually be considered choruses when related to pop music. They serve as the hook to the song as the same tone is introduced every time, other than during the extended guitar break (which would be where the conventional guitar solo section would be anyways).
That leads to the discussion of the solo section and how each 8 bars introduces a unique guitar tone and feel. During the first 8 bars, Jimi plays a solo that is in the form of a minor pentatonic and in context, is a fairly straight forward sound for the time. This set up Jimi to go in numerous directions; he decides to bring in a slide (“METal on METAL”) to create an open and wandering feel. This leads to a wah explosion where the back and forth panning occurs. The last phrase is when the instrumentation comes together as Jimi chugs out chords in an acceding manner to reach the climax of delivering the last verse.
The last point that is worth a mention is how the tempo fluctuates and changes throughout. The song has a very ‘alive’ feel in that the song seem to ‘breath’ faster and slower, wavering around a stead beat. The beginning of the song starts out somewhat slow, and when the guitar part comes in, it is sped up slightly until it winds back down during the verse sections. Every section where the guitar is a focus point, the drums and rhythm section speeds up as if to keep up with Jimi and also try and hold him back. I believe that in relating this to the theory of music and that of African Culture this can be tied to a type of community participation. The repetition of the chord progression further exploits the example of community participation because as the song moves along, the more momentum it gains. Every band member is feeding off someone else and you can hear the energy though out the recording.
Bjorner, Olof (May 7, 2000). "Still on the Road: Bob Dylan Recording Sessions". Olof Bjorner.
McDermot. Kramer. “Setting the Record Straight.” 1992. Grand Central Publishing.
McDermot, Kramer & Cox. “Ultimate Hendrix.” 2008. Hal Leonard Corporation