John Wesley Harding (song)

The song presents the outlaw Harding in a positive light, but  by reading between the lines we can see that he is anything but praiseworthy.

We’re told he was a ‘friend to the poor’ but we’re given no evidence for this. And while the tone of

‘All along the countryside
He opened many a door’

makes these lines seem like an accolade, the ‘all along’ suggests that his door opening was confined to the narrow path he happened to be taking anyway. Opening doors suggests providing people with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had – something a friend to the poor might well do, but the lines

But he was never known
To hurt an honest man’

give us reason to suppose this was not the case. The ‘But’ (following ‘He opened many a door’) tells us that the door-opening was violent, and the lines imply they involved hurting dishonest men. They also tell us that he might have hurt honest men, although we can’t be sure because there was no actual evidence for this. Also, the narrow focus – ‘honest man’ – implies that his gentleness might not have extended as far as honest women!

That his attitude to women was far from chivalrous is clear from the second verse. The lines,

‘With his lady by his side
He took a stand’,

and in particular the expression ‘his lady’, give the impression of chivalry. But why was he taking a stand with her by his side, unless he was using her as a human shield?

The tone again becomes one of congratulation –

‘And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out’

– and again the tone is misleading. The ‘all but’ tells us that the situation was not in fact straightened out. If it’s read as Harding trying to do the straightening out, as presumably the narrator wants us to think, then he failed. If it’s the authorities – those he was presumably taking a stand against – then they failed, thereby letting a disreputable person off the hook. And the ‘helping hand’ he was always known to lend is a bit more sinister than at first appears. It wouldn”t have been any old helping hand, but one that involved people being shot at – since we’re told he had ‘a gun in ev’ry hand’.

Whereas his activities in the countryside were simply ‘along‘ it, his name resounded ‘All across the telegraph’. The tone makes it seem as if we’re being told he became famous everywhere. But unlike the countryside, telegraphs transmitted messages in straight lines along wires. So, what was actually happening is that his name was simply being passed on from one place to another by the authorities eager to warn their counterparts in another town of his approach. That this is so is corroborated by the lines

‘But no charge held against him
Could they prove’

– ‘they’ being those out to bring him to justice. Yet again the language makes it seem as if Harding is undeservedly being treated as a criminal  – as if perhaps he wasn’t guilty of these charges. However, the lines also support the alternative interpretation that he was guilty – and this would be more consistent with what we’ve found out about him so far.

Given that Harding took his stand in ‘Chaynee’ County, it’s perhaps surprising that no one could ‘track or chain him down’. There may even be a slight hint at corruption here – it would be impossible to know he couldn’t be chained down if he hadn’t in fact already been tracked down. The narrator, it seems, is not just out to give the impression that Harding is more honest than he seems, but that he is better at evading those in pursuit than is the case.

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