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.


  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. ‘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.

  5. Highway 61 epitomizes America at the time the song was written, and it showcases the desolation and materialism or the time, when America was sacrificing its own children to a pointless war and how anything and everything useless (telephones that do not ring) could be disposed of in ‘Highway 61’ (America)…yes, there are biblical references, the song is ‘blues’ (well, listen to the Johnny winter version if you want to see how it has been energized) but the core of the song is a condemnation of the culture

  6. Who are gathered on highway 61:
    Socialists symbolized by the Tricolore (french flag adopted in the french revolution)
    “Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
    I got forty red, white and blue shoestrings
    And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
    Do you know where I can get rid of these things
    And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
    And he said yes I think it can be easily done
    Just take everything down to Highway 61”

    People who are characterized by colour or race:
    “Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
    Told the first father that things weren’t right
    My complexion she said is much too white
    He said come here and step into the light, he says hmm you’re right
    Let me tell the second mother this has been done
    But the second mother was with the seventh son
    And they were both out on Highway 61”

    The poor people without home or clothes (gypsies)
    “Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
    Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
    He asked poor Howard where can I go
    Howard said there’s only one place I know
    Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
    Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
    And said that way down on Highway 61”


    But who is that gambler, who will start a world war on Highway 61. Could it be Hitler or somebody like him?
    “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 ”

    and now I understand the story about Abrahams sacrifice of Isaac.
    It has taken me 40 years.

    Oh 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”

  7. On a side note…

    It’s interesting that Dylan returns once more to the
    original “Highway 61 Blues” and borrows from the
    following verse for his 1978 blues song “New Pony”:

    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

    Anyone who thinks the term genius is ill-suited
    for Dylan need only consider how his brain can
    assimilate references from an incredible catalog of
    songs, then shape them into refreshing new
    compositions. No one can touch his gift for this.

    Einstein could do the same with physics properties:
    comprehend & combine them in mind-blowing new ways.
    Might say he was the Dylan of his day.

  8. Regarding allusion to the Vietnam war, I’m curious to know if Dylan had read Wilfred Owen’s 1918 poem: ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’

    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    and builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

  9. Tony
    You’re acquainted with my posts on UA and I read UD all the time but haven’t commented until now. “Highway 61 Revisited” is the Dylan song that has influenced me the most with it’s Blues roots. Your excellent commentary and the truly insightful writings of the fans here have inspired me. It’s heartening to know other people get it. I’ve always heard and played it as blues and agree it sounds best in Eb. Not unlike “meet Me In The Morning” which he does in D. Probably due to register I play it as a 1, 4, 5 in G playing all sevenths. For you players out there, give it a try, fun.
    And thanks to everyone for pulling together all the references and nuances of my favorite Dylan song. One interesting thing to me that I don’t see referenced (or I missed) is the ‘electrification’ of a classic Robert Johnson, Mississippi acoustic blues. But, all in all, grateful to read so much insight in one place! Thanks to everyone.

  10. Interpreting the second mother and the 7th son; The second mother is Bilhah the handmaiden of Rachel. She is the oldest of the 2 handmaidens and that is part of the deception of Jacob in marrying Leah, ( both Rachel and Leah are veiled but the handmaidens are swapped elder to younger to mislead Jacob). The seventh son was Gad whose mother was the third mother and the youngest handmaid and there is no apocryphal information to link Gad and Bilhah that I am aware of. Robert Zimmerman undoubtedly knew this, but perhaps artistic license or excessive drug use contributes to this. The first son Reuben (Leahs first boy) did get it on with Bilhah however.

  11. Louis the King also references Louis XI – the movie ‘If I Were A King’ about Louis and poet Francois Villon has a great impart on many of Bob Dylan songs.

  12. Or maybe it’s a random commentary on the inherently chaotic nature of the universe. Or maybe Dylan smoked weed and strung together a meaningless series of rhyming words in an effort to sound deep, so that we here 50 years later would debate what he meant.

  13. All I can say is it’s been some 55 years since the song, the lyrics, the poem was released.

    No one has cracked this one wide open…yet….officially.

    There is one important variable those who interpret this song fall prey to.

    They don’t pray.

    Ask yourself, why didn’t God make Abraham kill his son? The answer is FAITH!

    I haven’t been able to prove it yet but I’m betting that somewhere along hwy 61 is a town, a stop, a gas station, something that has to do with FAITH and if you find it and go in there and say, “BOB SENT ME”, that the 55 year old mystery will be solved.

    Balloons may well fall from the ceiling.

    I’m saving up for gas money. I need a car and fast food money as well.

    But, I’m gonna make it there….soon.

  14. Hey Mick!

    About 3 miles North of the State Line, where the road actually splits at Lent Drive, just beyond Stacy Cemetary, you’ll find Faith Baptist Church. Which, though it’s not Highway 61 at the point, the narrator certainly had to come from somewhere, a place of faith, in order to have found himself out on 61 doing what he thought was the Will of God. Just fodder for thought

  15. The son luckely was not killed in the end.
    People who have nothing to lose can be dangerous.
    Red, white and blue represent feelings.
    Telephones that don’t ring: she did not call him after the break-up.
    The seventh son, Gad, was not successful.
    The rovin’ gambler and his promoter speak for themselves.

    The ingredients for a lovestory with a bad start.

  16. Larry Fyffe, Thanks for your Dec. 31, 2016 commentary regarding who the charters in Highway 61 refers to. Your comment is the one reference, other than Tony’s, helps bring some meaning to the song.

  17. A slight variance by McDowell:

    I’m gonna buy me a pony, baby
    To pace, fox-trot, and run
    So if you see me coming, pretty baby
    I’ll be on Highway Sixty-one

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

  19. Socialists??? The American Revolution and the ‘red white and blue’ flag of the US came before the French Revolution – neither flag can be equated with ‘socialism’, but rather with the overthrow of the aristocracy.

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