Highway 61 Revisited

After Bob Dylan began utilizing electric instrumentation to accompany his songs with the album Bringing It All Back Home, some in the media created a new genre to describe the music: “folk rock.” That genre name always seemed affected, suited more to The Byrds covering Dylan as opposed to Dylan’s actual music. Because listening to “Highway 61 Revisited,” we can hear that Dylan is playing rock ‘n roll:

Backed by a rock ‘n roll band, including an electric piano, Mike Bloomfield’s weird slide guitar, and Dylan on a kid’s police siren whistle instead of harmonica, Dylan sounds like he wants to get out on actual Highway 61 and DRIVE. It is the musical equivalent of Zoe Bell doing the Ship’s Mast stunt on the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof:

Strap yourself to the hood and listen to a song that starts at the birth of history. The Bible tells us in John 1 that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The first word in “Highway 61 Revisited” is “God.” The first verse of the song is a play off  of another Bible reference, namely The Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. According to Wikipedia, this episode describes how “God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Moriah. Abraham begins to comply, when a messenger from God interrupts him. Abraham then sees a ram and sacrifices it instead.” How does Dylan put it?

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

His version of the episode is funny, uproarious, and slightly sacrilegious. It’s also personal. Dylan was raised in the Jewish faith, so he must have known this story well. His father was named Abraham, so when Dylan was a boy and heard about God directing Abraham to sacrifice his son – even though the episode is about a son named Isaac – we must presume that Dylan still took this directive a bit personally. Notice that in Dylan’s accounting of the story, he doesn’t mention Isaac at all, Dylan puts it as “kill me a son.” In the song, Dylan is imagining himself as the sacrifice by his own father. And, Abraham is ready to follow God’s orders. He wants to  prove his faith, and God knows the best place to hold the sacrifice is on Highway 61.

U.S. Route 61, or Highway 61, was a totemic symbol for Americans during the pre-interstate highway system days and referenced many times in popular culture. It was the major north-south thoroughfare in the middle of the country, tracing the route of the Mississippi River, the major river byway of the central United States. Dylan himself lived not too far from the actual Highway 61. It’s how people in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, MN, would have travelled to the state’s capital and the large urban centers of the Twin Cities. By the time Dylan wrote and performed “Highway 61 Revisited” in 1965, he had become enraptured by Robert Johnson and must have heard the legend of Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, where Highway 61 meets U.S. Highway 49 in Mississippi. In the song, Highway 61 is the place for sacrifice as well as renewal, rebirth, get-rich-quick schemes, cash grabs, desperation, and more. It’s also where the world ends. In the last verse, Dylan sings:

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored
He was tryin’ to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61

Dylan is talking about the “next world war,” which at the time of the song’s composition, was understood as war between the two nuclear powers of the United States and Russia. A conflict between the two would result in the nuclear holocaust. In “Highway 61 Revisited,” it’s welcomed as an opportunity for the bored roving gambler to make some money. “Hey, let’s sell some tickets! The whole family’s gonna want to see the apocalypse!” Nothing is more American than starting a world war solely as a profit generator as gleefully depicted by Dylan.

The genius of “Highway 61 Revisited” is that Dylan sees the entire cycle of human existence, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, played out on the mythic north-south passageway of the United States. All of this is portrayed in a three minute rock ‘n roll song.

Dylan never performed “Highway 61 Revisited” live during his crazed 1965-1966 tours, but did pick up the song for his first big return to the stage with The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival. (Listen via YouTube or the Spotify playlist below.) Dylan sings in his Nashville Skyline voice throughout his appearance at the festival. His performance transforms “Highway 61 Revisited” from pure cut rock ‘n roll into a honky tonk shit-kicker. It’s fun to hear what a 1969 version of The Band can do with the song since they weren’t featured on the original recording: Robbie Robertson plays piercing guitar; Richard Manual’s piano is all juke joint; the keyboard work by Garth Hudson sounds like someone slipped a carnival organ player some speed; and the backing vocals joining Dylan to proclaim the title of the song exhibit raucous joy. This is rock ‘n roll Hank Williams. 

A generation later, PJ Harvey reimagined “Highway 61 Revisited” on 1993’s album Rid of Me.

Harvey’s reconceptualizing of the song is an embrace of the darkness. The heaviest of guitars accompany Harvey’s vocals which range from stone-faced blankness to rage. As with her best vocal work, Harvey sounds like an enraged goddess bringing retribution to an ungrateful world. For the “the fifth daughter on the twelfth night” verse, she also brings a dark sultriness. Where Dylan gleefully greets the apocalypse as a windfall, Harvey completely rejects that notion with disgust. Her cover “Highway 61 Revisited” is one of the great interpretations of a Bob Dylan song. 

Image: Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

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