The Long, Enduring History of ‘All Along the Watchtower’
Ever since its release on 1967's John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" has become one of his most enduring classics. We're taking a look at how it has held up to numerous interpretations throughout the years.
John Wesley Harding was Dylan's return to his acoustic roots after his motorcycle accident. But rather than bring back the topical lyrics about civil rights and the Vietnam War, he continued the evocative, surreal images that made his previous three records -- Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde -- so groundbreaking, adding biblical imagery that foreshadowed his born-again phase more than a decade later.
Listen to Bob Dylan's Version of 'All Along the Watchtower'
Although John Wesley Harding was a critical and commercial success, "All Along the Watchtower" failed to chart when released as a single. It wasn't until Jimi Hendrix released his version with the Experience that the public truly embraced the song.
Hendrix was a known Dylan fan. He even once cleared a dance floor by demanding that "Blowin in the Wind" be played in a New York club. In a 1967 interview, Hendrix described Dylan's influence on his own songwriting. "I could never write the kind of words he does," Hendrix said. "But he's helped me out in trying to write two or three words 'cause I've got a thousand songs that will never be finished. I just lie around and write about two or three words, but now I have a little more confidence in trying to finish one."
Hendrix acquired a copy of John Wesley Harding before the album's official release and instantly knew he had to cover one of the tracks. Initially, he was planning to record "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," but after further consideration he chose "All Along the Watchtower." Hendrix claimed he had a natural gravitation toward the track. "The songs Dylan usually gave me are so close to me that I feel like I wrote them myself," he added. "With 'Along the Watchtower' I had that feeling." Less than two months after Dylan recorded the original, Hendrix was in the studio laying down his version.
Although Dylan's take didn't chart, Hendrix reached No. 20 with his cover, making it his highest-charting single in the U.S. "He loved Bob Dylan," producer Eric Kramer said during an interview with Sound on Sound. "He was fascinated by the color of the lyrics and the tone of the lyrics, and of course the chord sequences were wonderful. It was a very special song."
Listen to the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Version of 'All Along the Watchtower'
In a 1995 interview with the Sun Sentinel, Dylan described his reaction to hearing Hendrix's version. "It overwhelmed me, really," he said. "He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."
Praise can also be found in the booklet to Dylan's Biograph box set, where he said, "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record, and ever since he died I've been doing it that way. ... Strange how when I sing it I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."
When Dylan was honored as 2015's MusiCares Person of the Year, he went out of his way to thank Hendrix during his acceptance speech. "We can't forget Jimi Hendrix," Dylan proclaimed. "He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and brought them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere, turned them all into classics." Since then, "All Along the Watchtower" has been covered countless times, particularly in concert, where, likely spurred by Hendrix's take, it provides the opportunity for an instrumental blowout.
Take a look below to see how it's been interpreted by some other artists.
The Brothers and Sisters (1969)
Legendary producer Lou Adler assembled a gospel choir made up of some of the best backup singers in Los Angeles. Over a two-day span, they recorded 10 soulful renditions of Dylan's work, resulting in the group's only album, Dylan's Gospel. It has been reissued several times since its initial release, most recently in 2014.
The British post-punk and New Wave group XTC included their cover of "All Along the Watchtower" on their 1978 debut, White Music.
Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead
Dylan's 1987 tour with the Grateful Dead, captured two years later on Dylan & the Dead, is considered among the career low points for both artists. However, the nightly blowout on "All Along the Watchtower" was a crowd favorite.
Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Mike Love and Others (1988)
Bob Dylan was one of several artists enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Jan. 20, 1988. At the event's conclusion, George Harrison and Ringo Starr (who had also been inducted that day as part of the Beatles) led a who's-who jam session of the classic Dylan track.
U2 started mixing their version of "All Along the Watchtower" into live shows as early as 1981. However, the song's inclusion in the 1988 album and documentary Rattle and Hum made it a mainstay of their set list. They would go on to play it on all 47 dates of their Lovetown Tour.
The Grateful Dead (1989)
Following their tour with Dylan, the Grateful Dead regularly worked "All Along the Watchtower" into their shows. According to Setlist.fm, they performed it 118 times between 1987 and 1995.
Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Gov't Mule ('90s)
Following the Dead's lead, jam bands have historically been drawn toward Dylan's catalog, so it should come as no surprise that three of the biggest groups in the genre -- the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and Gov't Mule -- have covered "All Along the Watchtower." DMBAlmanac, a website dedicated to archiving the set lists of Dave Matthews Band, claims the group has covered the song more than 750 times.
Neil Young and Booker T. & the M.G.'s (1992)
In 1992, Neil Young performed "All Along the Watchtower" with Booker T. & the M.G.'s at a 30th anniversary tribute to Dylan, a pairing that worked so well that Young asked the veteran soul group to serve as his backing band for a European tour a year later.
Neil Young and Willie Nelson (1994)
After the tour with Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Young kept the song alive in his set lists, including a duet with Willie Nelson a year later at Farm Aid.
Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz (1999)
Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz performed the song together as part of the "Concert of the Century." The event took place on the White House lawn with Bill and Hilary Clinton in attendance.
Taj Mahal (2001)
Blues icon Taj Mahal took his turn covering "All Along the Watchtower" for his album Hanapepe Dream.
Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young (2004)
During the 2004 Vote for Change tour's stop in Minneapolis, Young appeared during Bruce Springsteen's set to perform "All Along the Watchtower."
The Fratellis (2007)
The Scottish trio recorded its cover for the compilation album Radio 1: Established 1967.
'Battlestar Galactica,' 'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Lucifer' (2007)
Part of the enduring legacy of "All Along the Watchtower" can be attributed to its continuous placement in pop culture. The song appears in films like A Bronx Tale, Watchmen and Forest Gump. It also found its way into three modern TV shows: an Eastern arrangement by composer Bear McCreary for Battlestar Galactica, a brooding version by Billy Valentine and the Forest Rangers for Sons of Anarchy and a searing piano jaunt performed by Lucifer star Tom Ellis.
Eddie Vedder (2007)
Pearl Jam performed the song on numerous occasions in the early '00s. Then, Eddie Vedder contributed his voice to the soundtrack for the Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Vedder's backing band on the track included members of Sonic Youth, Television and Wilco.
Ed Sheeran and Devlin (2012)
Ed Sheeran and English rapper Devlin collaborated on a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" in 2012 that became a Top 10 hit in Britain. Unlike previous covers, this one incorporated samples of both Dylan's and Hendrix's iconic versions. In 2018, the producers of the Amazon series Jack Ryan used it in a trailer that was released in conjunction with Super Bowl LII.
John Mayer (2014)
As befitting a guy who would soon be hanging out with three surviving members of the Grateful Dead, John Mayer covered "All Along the Watchtower" during his set at the 2014 Made in America festival in Los Angeles.
Slash, Robby Krieger and Others (2014)
A salute to Jimi Hendrix was held during the 2014 South by Southwest conference in Austin. Joining Slash and the Doors' Robby Krieger onstage were Wayne Kramer (MC5), Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction) and Rusty Anderson from Paul McCartney's band.
Moon Taxi (2016)
An eclectic lineup of musicians joined forces for a two-day event at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Dubbed "Dylan Fest," the celebration was designed to honor Bob Dylan's 75th birthday. It featured performances by Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, Boz Scaggs, Kesha, Brendan Benson and many more. Indie rockers Moon Taxi delivered a frenetic version of "All Along the Watchtower."