Returning to the (somewhat) more straightforward narrative feel of his earlier songwriting, "All Along the Watchtower" was one of the highlights of Bob Dylan's long-awaited return to the music world, 1968's John Wesley Harding. Over a chugging, mid-tempo beat, Dylan recounts a short conversation between two men, one a joker despairing that the world is filled with robbers while the other, ironically a thief, reassures him with the words: "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke." This inversion of common roles and the obvious constraint felt by both ("There must be some way out of here" are the first words of the song) can be seen in the context of Dylan's own place in music. His year of seclusion -- following a mid-1966 motorcycle accident -- was seen by many as a way to slow down the rush of both industry and the media anointing him the voice of the decade. The Biblical imagery and apocalyptic words ("the hour is getting late") also point to an end-of-the-world tale, though Dylan is a notoriously difficult songwriter to pin down with the usual conventions.
As happens several times on John Wesley Harding, the song starts in media res, and ends just as the action appears to begin (with the approach of a pair on horseback). Dylan balances his vocal lines with a few plaintive wails from his harmonica, and trails off just barely two and a half minutes from the beginning. Although "All Along the Watchtower" has been performed many times by a variety of artists -- including Richie Havens, Jeff Healey, XTC, Buddy Miles, Indigo Girls, Bobby Womack, U2, John Mellencamp, Dave Mason, and TSOL -- it remains one of the few Dylan songs most commonly identified not with the songwriter himself. While at a party just a few weeks after John Wesley Harding was released, Jimi Hendrix remarked to Traffic's Dave Mason that he wanted to record "All Along the Watchtower." Within a few days, the pair were in London's Olympic Studios recording with drummer Mitch Mitchell. Raging and climactic where Dylan's had been soft-paced and relaxed, Hendrix's version became a rock standard. Perhaps the most glowing tribute to Hendrix came from Dylan himself, who began performing his own song in a version closer to Hendrix's than the original.