All Along the Watchtower: A Tale of Two Covers

Bob Dylan wrote “All Along the Watchtower” in 1967 on his farm in New York. At the time, Bob was recovering from a motorcycle accident and struggling to define his stature in the current musical landscape. The cut was a departure from his most recent harder electric work, more reminiscent of his folk days. As such, it is acoustically driven and features his haunting harmonica. It failed to reach the charts but has proven to be one of the most revered rock tunes of all time. As Music journalist Tom Taylor states, “No song symbolized [Dylan’s] deep introspective approach quite as profoundly and memorably as ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The song is shrouded in the mystique of a biblical overture…it is the ambiguity and philosophical scope of such songs that make them stand out as masterpieces in the world of modern music”.

“Watchtower” appears on the 1967 album “John Wesley Harding”. It marks Dylan’s second instance recording on Music Row, appearing between the albums “Blonde on Blonde” from 1965 and “Nashville Skyline” in 1969. These albums comprise his now legendary “Nashville Trilogy”. Recorded in Capitol Studios, “Harding” features a dazzling supporting cast of musicians known as the “A Team”. The phenomenal sidemen included session legend Charlie McCoy (bass guitar) and the venerated Kenny Buttrey (drums). Production duties fell to Bob Johnston, the man who convinced Dylan to record in Music City in the first place. The song was released on November 22, 1968, exactly five years to the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated only seven and five months respectively before the song’s release. It was a crazy and confusing time in America.

To quote the immortal Hunter S. Thompson, “Dylan is the purest, most intelligent voice of our time…He always speaks for the time”. This 1967 album captures the songwriter operating in the midst of a contentious nation. The Vietnam conflict was raging, and America was a divisive and wounded land. Bob’s words have always carried more weight in times of pearl and this tune was no exception. In a country that was hemorrhaging hope, a generation once again turned to its voice. This is a composition that universally reverberates and while the lyrics can seem vague, the message can apply to anyone. However, the legacy of this song resides far from its origin.

It is ironic that “All Along the Watchtower” is not usually immediately associated with its prestigious author, highly unusual for such a monumental song. Dylan did release the tune as a single, but it never picked up any steam. This is truly a case of the cover versions being more well-known than the original. “Watchtower” has been reinterpreted by some of the most influential artists of all time including Eric Clapton, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Eddie Vedder, U2, and Willie Nelson. But it is two very distinct versions, done by two generational artists, that rise above the rest.

“All Along the Watchtower” was released by Jimi Hendrix in September of 1968. It is consistently regarded as the finest cover in the history of Rock n’ Roll. Renowned rock guitarist Rik Emmett calls it a “defining statement” and “still the greatest guitar recording that ever made the Top 40”. With its iconic guitar riffs and mesmerizing solos, “Watchtower” is a landmark recording and one of the undisputed standards of psychedelia. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine named Hendrix’s rendition of the song number 48 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

It is no secret that Jimi idolized Bob. He once characterized Dylan’s songs as “filled with the joys and sadness of life”. Hendrix was given an advanced copy of the song and it resonated with him in a major way. Jimi later stated, “Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them. I have the feeling that ‘Watchtower’ is a song I could have come up with”. But constructing his own vision based upon Dylan’s blueprint would prove difficult for the guitar superstar. As session engineer Eddie Kramer later remembered, Hendrix “was constantly changing chord patterns and arrangements, endlessly trying to perfect the sound”. He did. “Watchtower” was the biggest hit of his career.

Whatever was missing in the original song, Hendrix found it. When Bob finally heard Jimi’s version of his song, he said simply, “It overwhelmed me”. Dylan has played “All Along the Watchtower” in concert more than any other song of his legendary catalog. When he performs it these days however, it sounds much more like the timeless Jimi Hendrix classic and less like the song he wrote on his farm 55 years ago. It was not until the mid 1990s that a band would release a version of “Watchtower” that would have such an impact.

The Dave Matthews Band has personified the modern definition of the American rock band for the last 30 years. But they are so much more than that. DMB refuses to be pigeonholed to any one genre. They comprise a dynamic musical fusion including jazz, rock n roll, folk, brass, and blues. As their website states, “Dave Matthews Band formed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in early 1991 when vocalist/guitarist Dave Matthews decided to put some songs he had written on tape…Matthews found assistance in drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who were both accomplished jazz musicians in the local Charlottesville music scene. Based on the recommendation of distinguished local jazz guru John D’earth, 16-year-old musical prodigy Stefan Lessard came on board to play bass. Completing the lineup were keyboard player Peter Griesar (who left the band after a couple of years) and talented and classically trained violinist Boyd Tinsley”.

In 2018 the DMB album “Come Tomorrow” debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, making Dave Matthews Band the first group in history to have seven consecutive studio albums debut at top position. In addition to commercial success, their concert performances are the stuff of legend. DMB has been regarded as one of the most frenetic and forceful live acts of recent memory. Almost from the beginning, an ultimate highlight of their live show has been their version of “All Along the Watchtower”. Any person who has never been to a Dave show anticipates the performance of “Watchtower” and any returning fan can’t wait to hear it again. The DMB cover is unique in that it incorporates elements from both the Dylan and Hendrix versions while simultaneously achieving an original adaptation. Dave’s powerful vocals and the band’s unique instrumental arrangement make for a truly distinctive rendering.

“Watchtower” was first released by the Dave Matthews Band on their 1994 EP “Recently”. It was the only track on the EP that was not an original composition. Although versions of the song have been released by other artists since, DMB’s take best captures the essence of both the Dylan original and the renowned Hendrix cover. Their version begins with soft vocals and a slow tempo, reminiscent of Dylan. The song then builds to a Hendrixesque psychedelic splendor, culminating in a frenetic jam that has come to be the band’s signature. To be truly appreciated, the DMB version must be experienced live.

“All Along the Watchtower” is one of the seminal songs of the twentieth century. Written by Bob Dylan in a time of fantastic despondency, it is a tune that offered a glimmer of hope. As Taylor puts it, “With ‘All Along the Watchtower’ [Dylan] provided a message that usurped spiritual vapidness and despondent nihilism that pervaded an era of despair in America…In short, it is a song that basically says the world is rough, but don’t despair, you’ve got to look beyond your own watchtower”. But perhaps the greatest attribute of the song is how it strikes so many separate chords throughout multiple generations. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, including the artists. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the Dave Matthews Band all sing the same words, but they are playing three very different songs.

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