Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the Bob Dylan folk song, “All Along the Watchtower,” adapts the song from Dylan’s mellow and malicious folk song to an exuberant, angry rock anthem for young people in the late 1960s. Under Jimi’s alterations, the instrumentation turns ominous and aggressive, his exuberant vocals sounding almost pleading. The song contains a limited chord structure and longer-than-usual musical sections, as well as unsettling improvisation and call-and-response from the vocals and guitar. The combination of all these musical elements make the listener, especially one who was young in 1968 (when the song was released), feel overwhelmed and frustrated, likely with the circumstances of the world around them. This song perfectly typifies those feelings, while at the same time serving as a call to action towards the forces behind the injustices they see.
The trapped feeling elicited from the instrumentation is expressed perfectly in the lyrics of the first verse of the song: “’There must be some kind of way out of here." The first line is a phrase many youth must have thought in the 60s, given the circumstances of their environment – the smothering expectations of their parents and the threat of the Vietnam draft made many young people in that decade uncertain as to their options and future. Some did find a ‘way out of here’; draft dodgers fled to Canada, Sweden, and Mexico, or went into hiding somewhere in the States. Until Jimmy Carter pardoned all Vietnam draft dodgers in 1979, there was also a stigma that a draft dodger was a coward, at least among older Americans. Regarding the chaos of the antiwar protests and horrifying information that was coming out of the media, the lyric ‘there’s too much confusion’ rang true for a lot of Americans. Like the Joker in ‘Watchtower,’ recipients of the draft couldn’t get any relief from inevitable service in Vietnam. The same is true of African-Americans – the assassination of two of their most influential leaders (MLK and RFK), as well as the brutality of the police response to their outcry for equal rights would have left some blacks in the ‘60s confused and seeking relief.
The cold distance described in the final verse is how the dominant culture views the uneducated masses: a strange desert of emptiness and lack of hope that they choose to ignore, treating life as a joke as mentioned earlier in the song. Suddenly, a wild cat growls, conjuring up images of nature, unbridled and free, representing ideals of freedom and harmony with Mother Earth that the hippie counterculture placed in high regard. The implied ferocity of the cat supplements the aggressive instrumentation, which agitates and provokes the listener into action against the dominant culture. The two riders who approach are, as implied, the joker and the thief from earlier, our shepherds to a better way of life, approaching the castle of the higher classes to confront them and change things for the better. They are the listener’s guides to action, calling them to arms against the injustices they see around them – unjust and cruel wars, racism, corruption, etc. Jimi’s voice once again nearly yells the final line in the song, as the wind begins to howl, nature once again rearing its head against industrialization and implying that the battle between the dominant culture and the hippie counterculture is beginning.
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,None of them along the line know what any of it is 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 viewWhile all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl