At first this appears to be an outlaw ballad about John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895) a Texas sharp-shooter who it is claimed had murdered over 40 people by the time he was sent to prison in 1878. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1969, Dylan discussed how the song didn't turn out as he originally intended: "I was gonna write a ballad on - like maybe one of those old cowboy - you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn't want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that. I knew people were gonna listen to that song and say that they didn't understand what was going on, but they would've singled that song out later, if we hadn't called the album John Wesley Harding and placed so much importance on that, for people to start wondering about it. If that hadn't been done, that song would've come up and people would have said it was a throw-away song."
Dylan mistakenly added the 'G' to Hardin's name.
On the cover of John Wesley Harding, on either side of Dylan (who was wearing the same jacket he'd worn on the sleeve of Blonde On Blonde) is Luxman and Purna Das of the Bengali Bauls music collective, who were staying with Dylan's manager Albert Grossman at the time. Standing behind them is Charlie Joy, a Woodstock carpenter and stonemason. The foursome all sport a rather disheveled "common man" look and the whole arrangement was possibly a dig at the Beatles and their Sgt. Pepper cover with the Fab Four placed at the center of a group of famous personalities.
In Stephen King's 1989 novel, The Dark Half, the protagonist recalls having a pet raccoon named John Wesley Harding. At one point, he also sings snatches of the tune to calm himself down while hiding out in a junkyard.