HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, REVISITED
It’s often easy to listen an album from back in the day, and after a few spins around the record player, move on. While exploring the vast canon of rock and roll it’s easy to get caught up in drive by listenings, giving cursory listens as you work your way down the shelf. A journey down the timeline can often turn into a checklist of heard it, heard it, and heard it, check. Many of the records make it easy commit this crime as by in large, they don’t stand out, “just ‘cause it’s old don’t mean it’s good” said the old timer in that self-incriminating tone. If you intend to avoid this trap I recommend picking those couple records that stand out, force a double take and might suck you into constant replays. Bob Dylan, the American troubadour (maybe more aptly, Prophet) made such a record.
Highway 61 Revisited forces you to avoid the above-mentioned trap. As you’ve been working down the list of your parent’s record collection, Highway 61… will pull you out of that distracted doldrums and say “HEY! LISTEN UP!” Released in 1965, but sounding just as urgent today, this is Dylan’s first officially first completely rock and roll record. The records that come before show a slow slide into electric madness, but always went back to a few simple tunes on the acoustic guitar. Here, on Highway 61… we get driving, passionate and burning rock and roll all the way through. Exploring his old folk tinged music; the new electric style holds new flavors of the blues as well. The title of the record itself makes mention of Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway because of its route from North to south along historical lines of development from Delta Blues to northern Chicago
The opening tune, “Like a Rolling Stone” contains a wonderful tribute to the Chicago blues organ, with its feel of gospel and glorious and sacred church music. The song was reportedly written as a rebuke to those who criticized Dylan for going electric. But here in this song with its blues and mention of Muddy Waters “Rollin’ Stone” tune, he seems to be connecting his folk music to the roots of rock and roll. The rock and roll he was being attacked for wasn’t very far from the folk he had been playing and to him a natural progression in the same way that the old masters had picked up their electric guitars and stayed true to the roots, feeling and folk music. Dylan’s vocals are also screamed and chanted with more power than usual. The shy folk singer alone on stage has disappeared and a screaming provocateur has replaced him.
“Tombstone Blues” contains an amazing guitar lick ripped right out of the old blues records. The shuffle style of the drums continues the homage and the lyrics such as “ Momma’s in the factory she ain’t got no shoes/ Daddy’s in the alley he’s looking for food/ I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues’ takes us back to the Blues form. Bob Dylan is not just making an album of covers however, he makes it his own. The lyrics touch and briefly land in old blues territory but they also soar in the stream of consciousness style of poetry Dylan perfected. “Like a Rolling Stone” clocks in at 6:00 minutes, and was originally 10 pages of lyrics. In “Tombstone Blues” he also keeps his ridiculous and humor alive and well with the psychedelic sounding, “The skies not yellow, it’s chicken.” “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is a straight forward blues tune, with harmonica, walking drums and a repeating piano and guitar riff. The turn around at the end of phrases is also deftly used. As Dylan plays the harmonica we are taken back to a dusty train station, the drums sounding like the train, the guitar its whistle.
The title track starts with a carnival slide whistle, creating a circus feel that moves into another tune that holds that old blues shuffle. The song, satirizing Biblical stories and issues of race, class and struggle along the Blues Highway, the characters all have a problem that is either solved or explored along the asphalt. The slide whistle and the moan of Dylan contrast the blues form and a farcical circus. He seems to be commenting on the strange nature of the story, the crazy circus of biblical ideology.
Over all, Highway 61 Revisited is a disc worth revisiting over and over. It contains some of the greatest rock tunes, lyrics from a master and pays tribute to the forms that led to it. The album is an apologetic for all its critics. Dylan is showing the hecklers that his rock and roll is not a denial of his roots but an embracing of it. The blues is fully grounded while containing the electric guitar, and Dylan uses it deftly. He uses the blues form well but also makes it his own, forging ahead. He’s in the delta or in a convertible up Highway 61 to Chicago, but is still wholly himself.