The 1968 Exhibit: Bob Dylan in 1968: "John Wesley Harding"

Bob Dylan has been making the news again recently--especially for his August 25, 2010 show at the Warfield Theater on Market Street in San Francisco.  The date was announced only a week in advance, and tickets were sold at the box office only on the day of the performance, one per customer and for cash only.  No Internet, no credit cards.  Astounding.  (Even more astounding?  By showtime, the house was only half full.)   Except for the ticket price ($60), it could have been a gig from 1968.

Except that there weren't any Dylan gigs in 1968.

dylan-sep-110268If you scan the Dylan chronology, 1968 has some conspicuous gaps.  It was the first year since 1962 that he did not release an album, and he made just one live appearance, on January 20, in a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall honoring Woody Guthrie, who had died a few months earlier.  But his presence still loomed over the year, so much so that, by November, Saturday Evening Post could still call its cover-story profile of Dylan "Enter the King."  ("King"?  Wasn't that always Elvis?)

Since his July 1966 motorcycle crash, Dylan had been relatively reclusive,  living at home in Woodstock, NY.  He spent the summer of 1967 (the "Summer of Love") there, writing dozens of songs, and recording demos for other artists. Peter, Paul and Mary; Manfred Mann (remember "Quinn the Eskimo"?); The Byrds; and Joan Baez--all had hit singles and albums in 1968 with songs Dylan wrote during this period. At the same time, he recorded many more songs with a band called The Hawks, the musicians who had helped him "go electric" in 1965 and who had effectively become his permanent live backing band. Some of those songs were eventually released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.

john-wesley-hardingJohn Wesley Harding

In the fall of 1967, Dylan went to Nashville to record his first official album in over a year and a half.  "John Wesley Harding" was a return to the folk idiom, with his first pure country recordings thrown in at the end of the record. The album was released two days after Christmas in 1967 and sold well in 1968. It peaked at #1 in the UK and #2 in the States and spent most of spring 1968 in the Top Ten.

Two singles from the album were released in 1968: "Drifter's Escape" and "All Along the Watchtower."  Neither single charted. Jimi Hendrix released his version of "All Along the Watchtower" as a single in September 1968 to critical and popular acclaim; even Dylan later admitted that Hendrix's recording was special.

big-pinkThe Band and "Big Pink"

Early in 1968 The Hawks renamed themselves "The Band" and released an album of music inspired by their work with Dylan the previous year. They even named it after the house in Woodstock where they and Dylan had done much of their playing. "Music from Big Pink" (the album's cover art, painted by Dylan, is on the right) received generally positive critical response (particular a review in a fledgling but influential magazine called Rolling Stone), but sold only modestly in 1968. It slowly built a reputation but eventually (2001) made it to Gold. Their next two albums would both reach the Billboard Top Ten.

Everybody has a Dylan story-- tell us yours!

With thanks to The 1968 Project music expert John Vanek