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Poets & Troubadours: Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower


Though the song was written solely by Bob Dylan and first appeared on his John Wesley Harding album, I’m giving Jimi co-authorship credit. Hendrix’s powerful rendition is the definitive version and easily the most recognized.

Inspired by Old testament verse that alludes to the Four horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Day of Reckoning, All Along the Watchtower takes the wealthy and powerful to task for their usury ways. It chastises the establishment for knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Only outsiders, those on the fringe, truly value life and take it seriously.

In the song, outsiders are arriving to wreck the old order with the Joker serving as a symbol for the Artist whose role is to entertain but also to mock and provoke the powers that be.

In the same way that Hendrix used his guitar to portray the chaos and destruction of the Vietnam War in his version of The Star Spangled Banner (the only official version, in my mind), he uses it to build suspense for the conflict to come in All Along the Watchtower. When Dylan performs The Watchtower live, he is truer to Hendrix’s interpretation than his own folksy original.

The Watchtower is Dylan’s the most minimalist, expressionist and symbolic of his lyrics. It is one of my favorite rock and roll poems.

                                                            ###

All Along the Watchtower

By Bob Dylan

“There must be some kinda way out of here”
Said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief”

“Businessmen, they, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it’s worth

“No reason to get excited”
The thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke”

“But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too

Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl

All along the watchtower
All along the watchtower

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Categories: Verse

Poets & Troubadours: Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”


“Is That All There Is?” wasn’t written by Peggy Lee (it was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) nor was it written for her. But it should have been. The song was a perfect fit for Peggy’s cool, understated style. No other performer has been able to match her detached, unemotional melancholy. A lesser artist would have delivered “Is That All There Is?” as a frantic, overwrought plea.

Randy Newman, no stranger himself to wry, understated melancholy, composed the orchestral arrangement and conducted the orchestra.

The lyrics are based on Thomas Mann’s short story, Disillusionment. A character in the story asks, “Do you know what disillusionment is? Not a miscarriage in small important matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?”

Peggy was an intellectual and reader. She loved the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was also a perfectionist and a strategist. Early in her career, tired of trying to sing over the cacophony of jazz club audiences, she captured their attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang, the quieter the crowd. Thus, she developed her seductive and cooing yet powerful style. She used an appearance on Joey Bishop’s late-night talk show to force a reluctant Capitol Records to release a song they thought was too depressing.

                                                             Is That All There is

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away. And I thought I’d die — but I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself, “Is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no. Not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my lst breath, I’ll be saying to myself,

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Categories: Verse