The Wicked Messenger

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"The Wicked Messenger"
Song by Bob Dylan
from the album John Wesley Harding
Released December 27, 1967
Recorded November 29, 1967
Genre Folk rock, country rock
Length 2:02
Label Columbia
Songwriter(s) Bob Dylan
Producer(s) Bob Johnston
John Wesley Harding track listing

"The Wicked Messenger" is a song written and originally performed by Bob Dylan for his album John Wesley Harding. The song was recorded in Columbia's Studio A, Nashville, on November 29, 1967.[1]

Structure and instrumentation[edit]

The song's instrumentation is light, a characteristic shared with the rest of John Wesley Harding. It features a repetitive descending bass line that carries the song, and the most prominent instrument used is Bob Dylan's acoustic guitar.[2]


The lyrics have their origins in the Bible. In his book, Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Mike Marqusee writes:

Dylan was studying the Bible at the time, and he used many biblical reference in the songs on the John Wesley Harding album.[5] His mother, Beatty Zimmerman, revealed in an interview at this time:

The song revolves around a character, a "wicked messenger", who has been sent by Eli, a priest in the Books of Samuel. For the critic Andy Gill, "this eponymous messenger is, of course, Dylan himself, the bringer of harsh truths".[7] The lyrics are somewhat opaque ("When questioned who had sent for him/He answered with his thumb/For his tongue it could not speak but only flatter"), and the song ends with a sardonic, slightly cryptic moral, "And he was told but these few words/Which opened up his heart/"If ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any"[8] perhaps a reference to 2 Samuel 4:10.[citation needed]

Gill's interpretation of the song is that the high priest Eli was one of the more intellectual figures in the Old Testament. To have been sent by Eli implies a reliance on intellect. Gill suggests that "perhaps Dylan felt he had valued rationality too highly over spirituality."[9]

Cover versions[edit]

The song has been covered several times, most notably by The Faces on their LP First Step, The Black Keys on the soundtrack I'm Not There, Patti Smith on her album Gone Again, and Marion Williams on her album "Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go". David Nelson Band has been covering this song for years at their live shows. The song was also covered by Jerry Garcia with his band Legion of Mary during their tour in 1975. In Greece Dionysis Savvopoulos adapted (freely) and covered it in his album Βρώμικο ψωμί (Dirty Bread) in 1972 under the title "Άγγελος Εξάγγελος", then re-recorded it in his 1997 covers-album Το ξενοδοχείο (The Motel).


  1. ^ Bjorner (2000-05-15). "November 29, 1967". Bjorner's Still on the road. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
  2. ^ "John Wesley Harding [Remaster]". Muze Inc. Retrieved 2009-10-21.
  3. ^ "Proverbs 13:17". Retrieved 2009-10-21.
  4. ^ Books listing Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s by Mike Marqusee, pp. 248-249
  5. ^ Gill, 1998, My Back Pages, p. 127.
  6. ^ Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin Pg. 285
  7. ^ Gill, 1998, My Back Pages, p. 134.
  8. ^ [1] Lyrics for "Wicked Messenger"
  9. ^ Gill, 1998, My Back Pages, p. 135.


  • Gill, Andy (1999). Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages. Carlton. ISBN 1-85868-599-0.
  • Marqusee, Mike (2005). Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 1-58322-686-9.