Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part III: Words don’t interfere

by Jochen Markhorst

1          Captain Arab & Pirate Jenny

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

Debatable, but “your temperature’s too hot for taming” from “Spanish Harlem Incident” (1964) is perhaps the first: catachresis, the “wrong use”, the unknown, renewing combination of incompatible words, which nevertheless seem familiar, seem to have an old-fashioned power like proverbs or clichés. The poet has recently discovered the potential of abusio (as catachresis is also called). In “Farewell, Angelina” and especially in her twin sister “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (seasick sailors, empty-handed painter and the saints are coming through, for example), in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, continuing it on Blonde On Blonde and in the Basement songs.

A first definition of this specific language error goes all the way back to Alexander Pope (1688-1744, the poet to whom we owe fools rush in where angels fear to tread), but in the twentieth century it is elevated to a figure of speech, to a literary artifice by Dadaists, Beat Poets and Jacques Derrida.

It is a stylistic feature that derives from nearby association – grist to the mill of a stream-of-consciousness poet like Dylan in these mid-sixties. Apart from metaphors and character descriptions, he occasionally uses it for naming too: Captain Arab in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a first (the nearby association being, obviously, Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab), on this album a Saint Annie comes along, and in the Basement Dylan juggles with half-familiar names like Tiny Montgomery and Quinn the Eskimo. All too often the bard does not play with names, though – it easily degenerates into silly puns, after all.

Still, in “Highway 61 Revisited” he succumbs again.

God and Abraham in the first verse, two old song-characters in the second verse, and in the third verse the beat poet leaves the ground again: both protagonists in this verse are catachreses, recognizable names, though fictional, only through nearby association.

“Mack the Finger” is a rather witty trivialisation of Mack The Knife, the English name of one of Brecht’s most famous protagonists, Mackie Messer from the Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1928). Brecht has left more footprints in Dylan’s work in previous years, which should be traced back to his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Suze works behind the scenes in the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street, and sometimes invites her boyfriend to drop in. In her memoirs (A Freewheelin’ Time, 2008) she talks about the explosive impact on Dylan of visiting Brecht on Brecht, a kind of best of compilation of Brecht songs, poems and theatre fragments (George Tabori, 1962). Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles confirms the event and its impact, and elaborates on the song “Pirate Jenny”,

“… a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out. Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin.”

And he concludes the long hymn of praise to the song with the observation that it has been a turning point; from now on he writes totally influenced by “Pirate Jenny”.

In the same Brecht On Brecht, at the very beginning of the First Act and again as a finale, that famous murder ballad “Mack The Knife” comes along, but of course Dylan is already familiar with that particular song – Ella Fitzgerald has just received a Grammy Award for her recording, and in ’59 Bobby Darin scored a huge hit with it.

2          Louie, Louie

The abusio “Mack The Finger” gets an equally half-familiar opponent in Dylan’s song: Louie The King. Some commentators try to draw a line to the French royal family from there, but that seems a bit too far-fetched. Mack The Knife, Brecht, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin… a musical colleague is more likely. Another faction of analysts therefore jumps to King Louie from Jungle Book, unforgettable thanks to Louis Prima’s brilliant performance in one of the film highlights “I Wanna Be Like You”.

It seems obvious, indeed. King Louie, Louis Prima, and a first and perhaps even better candidate for the role was Louis Armstrong (eventually Disney didn’t dare to give a black artist the role of a monkey). But Dylan most certainly is not inspired by it; Jungle Book is a 1967 film, released two years after Highway 61. It is true that the film is based on Kipling’s book from 1894, but there is no King Louie in the book, or any monkey king at all, for that matter – the swinging orangutan really is a Disney concoction. Later Highway 61-listeners may, naturally, find enlightenment in the link, but in 1965, when writing song, the associative leap from Louie the King to King Louie is impossible.

No, the same Brecht song is nearer. The last four strophes list the victims of Macheath, nicknamed Mack the Knife, and the first name mentioned is Louie:

From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down;
The cement's just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie's back in town

Louie Miller disappeared, dear
After drawing out his cash;
And Macheath spends like a sailor.
Did our boy do something rash?


The song poet Dylan slaloms in the third verse of Highway 61 around the mercury ing-sound (Finger – strings – ring – things – King – think – think – everything), which is a more probable motive for renaming Louie Miller to Louie the King.
“It’s the sound – words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it,” as Dylan later tries to explain to journalist Ron Rosenbaum (Playboy interview 1977).

3          Brother Bill

The plot of this stanza seems to draw more from absurdist theatre than from a Brecht song. For some unfathomable reasons, Mack seems to be stuck with a handful of shoelaces and a cartload of defective telephones. Equally unclear is why he – somewhat panicky – would need Louie’s advice and directions to dump the entire package somewhere.

Sound and association have probably been the leading inspirators. Shoestring because he intuitively searches for an “ing-sound”, after finger and king, and through the expression shoestring operator the jumpy mind comes out at telephones ring. Perhaps. True, “shoestring operator” is a quite archaic term, but we know that Dylan is a William Burroughs fan, these days – according to Iggy Pop the “Brother Bill” in “Tombstone Blues” – and there are enough traces on the album to suggest that Burroughs’ The Soft Machine (1961) is on Dylan’s bedside table:

“Pantless corpses hang from telephone poles along the road to Monterrey – Death rows the boy like sleeping marble down the Grand Canal out into a vast lagoon of souvenir post cards and bronze baby shoes – “

…for example, which is only a small step towards the opening of “Desolation Row”. And Dylan has already put a mental dog-ear at shoestring operator before this fragment (Chapter 4, “Trak Trak Trak”: “Others are shoestring operators out of broom closets and dark rooms of the Mugging Department”).

Anyway, it opens another gate for the industrious Dylan interpreters. The first takes (to be heard on The Cutting Edge, 2015) are still somewhat less absurd; “I got a thousand red white blue shoestrings / and a bunch of telephones that don’t ring”, but that cannot really influence the tenor of meaning seeking Dylan exegetes.

“Telephones that don’t ring”, whether a bunch or thousand, is still a relatively unambiguous metaphor. Faulty communication, loneliness, dependency on technology… pick your choice.

The shoestrings are less unambiguous. Dylan starts the recording day, 2 August 1965, with a thousand shoestrings, but loses quite a few along the way; at the last take (the ninth recording, which will end up on the album) he has already lost 960, as there are only forty left. Which does not affect interpretation all that much, obviously. Red white blue is, of course, a well-known, loaded word combination, but shoestrings are completely unusual accessories in the art of song, nor bearers of meaning in poetry at all – let alone tricolour shoelaces. Alright, a B-side of a recent Jimmy Reed single (“I’m Going Upside Your Head”, 1964) is called “The Devil’s Shoestring”, but that is an instrumental number. And occasionally the word shoe-string appears in a Kipling poem, but there are not many more laces to be found in Dylan’s record cabinet and bookcase. Apart from Burroughs, that is.

No, looking for hidden meaning behind forty red, white and blue shoestrings is a dead end highway.

“It’s the sound…” though this time, the words do interfere.

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


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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  1. Sure the sound of words is important but we’re not talking nonsense words here – ‘red, white, and blue’ references the American flag used here, there, and everywhere to promote and sell Yankee Doodle products.

  2. Oh who will tie your shoe
    Oh who will glove your hand
    And who will kiss your ruby lips
    When I am gone?
    (Presnell: Shenandoah)

  3. He wears tan shoes with pink shoelaces
    A polka dot vest and man oh man
    Tan shoes with pink shoelaces
    And a big Panama with a purple hat band
    (Dodie Stevens: Pink Shoe Laces ~ Grant)

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