Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part II: On a desert island

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part I: Look out kid

by Jochen Markhorst

1          Mozart is my man

In 2015 Keith Richards is promoted to castaway on BBC Radio 4 and is granted to present his eight Desert Island Discs in one of the world’s longest running and most popular radio shows. It’s a cast-iron, simple and brilliant concept: a guest has to choose which eight pieces of music he would take with him to a desert island, plus one object and one book. It leads to often frank and revealing conversations with usually interesting guests – and to useless but always entertaining statistics.

The show has been on since January ’42, so over twenty-five thousand pieces of music have been chosen by now.

Classical composers win on all fronts. The whole Top 10 consists of classical pieces (at the top “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth, and Beethoven is still three more times in the Top 10), the Top 3 of most requested artists is Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.

They are not in Richards’ Top 8. Keef does surprise, though, with Vivaldi’s “Spring” from the Four Seasons, with an equally surprising, sheer poetic argument:

“I was agonizing over this list, ’cause Mozart is my man, you know, basically. But then I found out, reading some of Mozart’s letters, that the only good word he had to say about any other composer in the world was Vivaldi. And then I tried to put this together with being on a desert island, and I’m thinking: desert island – no seasons. So when I came down here, I picked the Spring section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I think he’s a brilliant composer.”

…but otherwise there are few real surprises. Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Etta James… songs and names that just as easily could have been chosen by a Paul McCartney or a Bob Dylan, for example. That certainly applies to the Rolling Stone’s finale: “Key To The Highway”, the classic that Richards wants to hear in the rendition by Little Walter.

 2          Key To Highway 61

“Key To The Highway” is an indestructible monument. Little Walter’s update from 1958 to a raw Chicago blues has become the standard, the exercise on the legendary LP Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek And The Dominos (1970), with Eric Clapton’s and Duane Allman’s brilliant guitar dialogue has elevated the song to the aristocracy, and the same Clapton has been convincing every new generation for half a century now – in concert, unplugged or as an accompanist, as in 2013 with Keith Richards at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, and with B. B. King on the occasional project Riding With The King (2000).

Dylan acknowledges the importance of the song too, and underlines that importance in his MusiCares-speech, 2015:

“Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow. I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write…

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”

… the entire second verse of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, the Georgia Sam stanza.

It is not that easy to follow, though. The other examples Dylan mentions to downplay his songwriting skills, or at least to put them into perspective, are clearer. From when you go down to Deep Ellum to when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, the bridge from “Deep Ellum Blues” to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is imaginable; John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down as inspiration for “Blowin’ In The Wind” can also be recognised, as can the sources Dylan mentions in this speech for “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.

But “Key To The Highway” seems at first sight only to provide that one word highway plus a tense of the verb to run. Besides that, the song is just a traditional lament, a ten-a-penny blues dirge of a poor loser who, after a broken love affair, starts wandering again. Which in any case has little in common with Dylan’s song, and certainly not with this one verse, this Georgia Sam stanza which, after all, is quoted by Dylan to demonstrate how self-evident the line from “Key To The Highway” to “Highway 61 Revisited” is.

3          Georgia Sam Blues

Dylan’s text is hardly a run-of-the-mill lamentation. This verse, for example, is a sample of the best that Dylan’s song art has to offer in these years: a surrealistic tableau in which an alienating clash of archetypes from various artistic disciplines is painted – all in a rhythmic barrage bursting with linguistic delight. We’ve already heard a first run-up to the style on The Freewheelin’ 1963), in “Bob Dylan’s Blues” (The Lone Ranger and Tonto they are ridin’ down the line), the style that will climax on Blonde On Blonde (1966) and which Dylan will still be reaching for in 2020 (“I Contain Multitudes”).

Here Dylan is still quite close to home. Blind Willie McTell, the blues legend that is a thread in Dylan’s oeuvre anyway, gets a name-check through Georgia Sam, one of Blind Willie’s recording names. At least, that’s the “fact” that is stubbornly mentioned in every story about “Highway 61 Revisited” and is now even invariably mentioned in articles about McTell. The source of that statement, the statement that “Georgia Sam” is one of McTell’s “recording names”, can no longer be traced, but it has already been copied thousands of times, so many times in any case, that it now is regarded a music historical fact.

It is quite debatable. The Georgia-born William Samuel McTier indeed made recordings under a number of pseudonyms, between 1927 and 1950: not only as “Blind Willie McTell” but also as “Blind Sammie”; “Georgia Bill”; “Hot Shot Willie”; “Blind Willie”; “Barrelhouse Sammy” and “Willie Samuel McTell”. But never ever as Georgia Sam. Bizarrely enough, even on tribute sites, on which all McTell recordings and his recording names are collected, the fun fact that Dylan in his song name-checks McTell with his recording name “Georgia Sam”, is always served out. After which, usually on the very same page, the complete discography is listed – without a single Georgia Sam.

Now, the alleged reference is not too far-fetched, obviously. Both “Georgia” and “Sam” are two occurring names among all those pseudonyms, and Blind Willie did come from Georgia and was called Samuel. Nevertheless, the rock poet Dylan does not seem to refer to McTell, but simply, really, literally, to a real “Georgia Sam”: to the protagonist of the single “Georgia Sam Blues / Cool Daddy Blues” from one of the forgotten blues ladies of the early days, from Anna Lee Chisholm, 1924:

In a southern town far away,
There’s a man they call Georgia Sam
There were times I used to love him dear
But now he’s gone astray

Granted, quite obscure, but then again: Dylan’s encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure songs is proverbial. More fitting anyway, since Sam’s opponent in Dylan’s song, “poor Howard”, is a fictional character as well, also from an old song, from “Poor Howard”. Recorded by Lead Belly, and quite recently by Robert Plant, and in a harmless, boring, bloodless version by The Weavers in 1949, but Dylan’s baggage probably contains the black humour version by Eddy Arnold:

Poor Howard's dead and gone, left me here to sing his song
Poor Howard had a wife and she nagged him all his life
So he used his butcher knife---like I said he had a wife
Now poor Howard's dead and gone...

4          A sweetheart like you with a bloody nose

So, the protagonists of this second strophe from “Highway 61 Revisited” are probably inspired by two song characters, one of whom has a nosebleed, wardrobe problems and an urge to flee, and the other only serves as a signpost. Still, he points the way with his gun, which does add some colour. Context is completely lacking, like with “All Along The Watchtower” for example, thus throwing the doors wide open to every conceivable interpretation. For the poet himself, however, as so often, the sound of the words has undoubtedly been decisive.

It does have impact anyhow. A bloody nose has never been an element of description in song art. Sure, black eyes, broken noses, or just plain “blood” often enough, obviously, but a bloody nose is simply a bit too childish, too corny. Until now, that is. Just like Dylan has made the word “clown” salonfähig, artistically acceptable (Lennon: “I objected to the word clown, because that was always artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was all right”), after  “Highway 61 Revisited” bloody nose has become acceptable. Elton John (“Made In England”, 1995), Billie Eilish (“Bad Guy”, 2019), Kings Of Leon, Bon Iver, The Who (“Doctor Jimmy”, 1973), John Mellencamp… Dylan has used it, so it’s all right.

The most beautiful bloody nose is on Gillian Welch’s thrilling masterpiece The Harrow And The Harvest (2011), an album studded with subtle and less subtle Dylan references anyhow. As in the moving “The Way The Whole Thing Ends”, in which verse fragments such as standing in the doorway crying and once you had a motorcycle but you couldn’t ride it right are explicit enough already, and the verse:

Momma's in the beauty parlor
And Daddy's in the baseball pool
Sister's in the drive-in movie
Brother's in the old high school

 … which is winking pleasantly, unobtrusively at “Tombstone Blues” and “Desolation Row”. And just as charming Gillian incorporates a playful nod to “Sweetheart Like You” and to “Highway 61 Revisited”:

Now what's a little sweetheart like you
Doing with a bloody nose?

5          P.S.

In June 1995, England’s national treasure, the irresistible Marianne Faithfull, is invited to be the castaway at Desert Island Discs. Number four on her list is “Highway 61 Revisited”:

“One of my greatest all-time favourites. I couldn’t live without it.”

To be continued. Next up: Highway 61 Revisited – part III


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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One comment

  1. Fascinating links in this article. Someone with ‘A bloody nose’ is often someone who has been defeated or shown up, especially in politics. I think it’s also a phrase for someone in financial difficulty, though I may have imagined that. It’s also used in some rather unpleasant sexual contexts, though possibly a later coinage than Bob’s usage.

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