Originally posted July 28, 2009:
One frequently hears, in discussions of diverse topics, that “Context is everything.”
An aside: Where did that little epigram come from? A Google search for “context is everything” brings back about 151,000 results, and none of the first forty or so of those seems to indicate the original source. Even Wikipedia is no help. I have a sense that a search for the lodestone of “context is everything” would result in an academic and historical argument like the one discussing whether the Americanism “OK” descended from the Germanic/Dutch expression “Oll Korrect” or the nickname of President Martin Van Buren, which was “Old Kinderhook.” And a lengthy discussion of that question should certainly be followed by a deep consideration of why I remember that kind of stuff to begin with. We now return you to our regularly scheduled post.
Well, context isn’t everything. A diamond remains a diamond wherever it’s cast. Intellectual hogwash remains just that no matter how it’s packaged or prettied up. But when we turn to individual pieces of music, then context can matter a great deal. The setting in which we hear a specific piece of music – whether that’s our physical environment or simply the order of a certain set of songs – can create a long-lasting sense of any particular piece.
I’ve written fairly frequently about so-called “Time and Place” songs, pieces that usher us back to dates and locales generally long gone. Those can be fascinating, but just as interesting to me this morning is the musical neighborhood a song can find itself in through album contents and running order.
Why that? And why today? Because I heard Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” coming out of the speakers this morning. A track on his 1968 album John Wesley Harding, the song – like the album itself – is presented barebones and spare: just guitar, bass, drums, harmonica and vocals. And when heard as a part of that album, when heard between the songs “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” one hears “Watchtower” as part of a meditation. At least that’s what I hear now, because the first time I heard Dylan’s version of “Watchtower,” it was bracketed by two very different songs.
The 1972 release Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II was a great album, pulling together hits, album tracks, live tracks and some unreleased stuff onto two LPs. It was my first Dylan album, and served as a good introduction. (I’d previously heard Dylan’s stuff in various places, of course, but until he performed at the Concert for Bangla Desh during the summer of 1971, I’d never really listened.) By pulling songs from the context of their original albums, however, the folks at Columbia (with Dylan’s assistance or at least acquiescence) altered the impact and even the meaning of those recordings. “All Along The Watchtower” was placed between the folky “She Belongs To Me” and the rollicking “The Mighty Quinn.”
In the company of those good but ultimately less complex compositions, I heard “All Along The Watchtower” as a snippet of some kind of medieval tale that Dylan hadn’t bothered to finish. Separated from the songs that bracketed it on John Wesley Harding, “Watchtower” seemed unformed, and I shrugged. Years later, when I heard it as part of John Wesley Harding (I’ve always been years behind in my listening and thinking about music; I expect to understand the Nineties in about ten years), the ambiguous ending seemed correct, not unfinished:
All along the watch tower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
The more I listen to John Wesley Harding, the more I believe that it’s a meditation on the pairings of ambiguity and fate, and faith and redemption. And I am certain that hearing “All Along The Watchtower” for the first time in a setting not the original made me listen to it and its companions more closely when I heard the original years later. In this case, then, context mattered a great deal.
(All-Music Guide lists more than four hundred CDs that contain a recording of “All Along The Watchtower.” I have seventeen different versions. It’s hard to do better than the original, but here are two versions that I find can also bear repeated listening.)
“All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and The Band from Before The Flood 
“All Along The Watchtower” by Affinity from Affinity