Album: John Wesley Harding.
It’s always been hard for me to exactly explain why I love “Drifter’s Escape” so much. Maybe because it describes an incident with amazing specificity: the Drifter has been found guilty, much to disgust of the Judge, and as the crowd cries for justice God intervenes by destroying the courthouse, and the Drifter escapes.
“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”
Maybe it’s because of the simple music: Dylan strumming his acoustic and blowing his harmonica between the verses; Kenny Buttrey being amazing as always on the drums, and Charlie McCoy providing sly bass hooks. And it’s all over in 2:46. Of course, that was most of John Wesley Harding.
Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”
Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more
Maybe because despite the specificity of the incident and simplicity of the music, “Drifter’s Escape” is completely mysterious. Of course, the long-held suspicion is that it’s a parable about Bob Dylan and his relationship to the white-hot stardom he was desperately dialing down with John Wesley Harding, so maybe that’s why I love it so much.
“Oh, stop that cursed jury”
Cried the attendant and the nurse
“The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse”
Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape
Or maybe it’s just that last verse with the deus ex machina helps the drifter triumph over mob rule, because the mob worships the deus in the first place. The combination of that kind of dramatic irony with the weird rhyme scheme of “out of shape” and “did escape” has fascinated me since I first heard it.
Official Video for “Drifter’s Escape”
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