Highway 61 Revisited (the song, not the album)

By Tony Attwood

In one sense all you need to know is that Highway 61 is the Blues Highway.  But it is also rather helpful to know that Abraham was the name of Bob Dylan’s father.

I have three versions of the song in my home – if there are more, I’m sorry I’m not a completist.  There’s the version on the album of the same name, one on No Direction Home and a third on Before the Flood.  The original I find hard to take these days because the police siren is just basically annoying, No Direction Home’s version is how it should be, I feel, while the live version is a perfectly decent but perhaps more energetic version than it ever needed to be.

For me the whole point of the song is to link the historic characters associated with Highway 61 with the characters that populate the whole of the Highway 61 album – which probably explains why Dylan was so keen to name the album Highway 61 Revisited.  It is the key to the rest of the album.

The song itself is a rock blues, full of energy and fun, showing us just where this seemingly simple music – the blues – can take us.  You don’t need more chords or an inventive melody, nor do you need the fancy backing guitar; all of these are available on Desolation Row and will come along in a moment.  You can just have the simplicity of the genre and still come up with new and interesting variation.

As Chronicles tells us, “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors.”

This is the road that the singer wanders down on “One too many mornings”.  This is the road that goes through Dylan’s home town, and is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.  And, we must not forget, it was the highway that already had a song written about it, in the 1930s.  Highway 61 Blues:

Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
Lord, that 61 Highway
It the longest road I know
She run from New York City
Down the Gulf of Mexico

Lord, it’s some folks said them
Greyhound buses don’t run
Lord, it’s some folks said them
Greyhound buses don’t run
Just go to West Memphis, baby
Look down Highway 61

I said, please
Please see somebody for me
I said please
Please see somebody for me
If you see my baby
Tell her she’s all right with me

I’m gonna buy me a pony
Can pace, fox-trot and run
I’m gonna buy me a pony
Can pace, fox-trot and run
Lord, when you see me, pretty mama
I be on Highway 61

I started school one Monday morning
Lord, I throwed my books away
I started school one Monday morning
Lord, I throwed my books away
I wrote a note to my teacher, Lord
I gonna try 61, today

Lord, if I happen to die, baby
‘Fore you think my time have come
Lord, if I happen to baby, Lord
‘Fore you think my time have come
I want you bury my body-yeah
Out on Highway 61

Lord, if your man
Should have you get boogied, baby
Lord, don’t want you to have no fun
If your man should have you get boogied
Baby, don’t want you to have no fun
Just come down to my little cabin
Out on Highway 61.

So Dylan was doing a tribute to the original song, to Robert Johnson, to the blues, to his upbringing and his home town, and doing it all with the strange characters that populated the whole of the album.

True to this definition, the song is a stretched blues format, using the three chords (B flat, E flat and F in the No Direction Home version) that make up every blues song.  Blues can be fast or slow, desperate or surreal.  It’s still the blues.

Knowing what we do about the significance of Highway 61 in Dylan’s life, and in his music, and the name of his father the first verse takes on a significance that is wholly missing if we don’t know any of these things.

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

What sounds initially like a knock about rock blues piece, suddenly becomes something quite different.  God tells Dylan’s father or perhaps the father of Judaism, that he has to kill his son at the place where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.

After that it is anyone’s guess what is going on.  Is Georgia Sam real?  Who is Poor Howard?  I wonder.  That first verse has so much going for it, it would be nice to know if these are just names or, along with  Mack the Finger and Louie the King, references to real people or just images showing that on Highway 61 anything is possible.

I like to think (but it is a mere whimsy) that the “12th night” verse is about the ghosts of all the great blues artists who have passed by Highway 61, but who knows.  And of course it doesn’t matter, because this song, more than any other is a statement of Dylan’s writing.  The taking of the origins of his music and combining it with his own fanciful characters.  Just as a different artist might have written about the same highway in a novel, with his own larger than life people living their own strange existences so Dylan pushes enough people to populate a novel into one song.

It is by linking these characters with the highway, and with our knowledge that this is the place where it all began, Dylan rounds the story off before it has properly started.  This is a summary of Dylan so far and a projection of just where he might go.  It is the start, and the signpost to the future.  It is the connection between Dylan and Robert Johnson.  It is the total map of where he has been and where he thought he might go.   We’re at the crossroads, next stop Desolation Row.

Index to songs and other sections on this site.

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8 Responses to Highway 61 Revisited (the song, not the album)

  1. Dewi jones says:

    Didn,t Jehovah command Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to Him Tony doesn’t,t mention this and I think this is more important than the fact that Dylan,s real father was also called Abraham

  2. rantipole says:

    so who wrote the “original” blues tune?

    heard Miss.miss. Fred McDowell do it .

  3. rantipole says:

    what’s that mean ?

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Rantipoole I dont think the answer is known.

  5. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/252/Highway-61-Revisited (Additional Information)

  6. SNL says:

    Genesis 22King James Version (KJV)

    22 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

    2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

    3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

    4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

    5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

    6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

    7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

    8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

    9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

    10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

    11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

    12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan, in postmodern style, mixes up the time of history, upon an existential highway stage of absurdist actors, some real, some imagined.
    ‘Poor Howard’ alludes to a Lead Belly song, the black musician therein referred to tracing back to Highway 1776 and the War of Independence- one Billy Walters.

    ‘Georgia Sam’ is likely Blind Willie McTell while
    ‘Louie The King’ is Louie Armstrong who sings
    Mack The Knife, about MacHeath, bringing it all back home to the Shakespeare and MacBeth.

    The spirits, souls, and shadows of actors and musicians, past and present, swirl about in the lyrics of many of Bob Dylan songs.

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘the 12th night’ Dylan also refers to in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands:

    ‘My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums/
    Should I leave them at your gate’

    IE, ‘Make me a willow cabin at your gate/
    …Write loyal cantons of contemned love/
    ….And sing them loud even in the dead of night,”
    (Shakespeare: Twelft Night)

    Christopher Ricks in his book misses Dylan’s Shakespearean allusion when the songwriter leaves bohemian sunglasses and Arabian drums at Lownds’ gate.

    Listeners who know poetry usually notice such allusions as quickly as those who know their music notice a blues format, for example.

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