The story so far…
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part I: Look out kid
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part II: On a desert island
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part III: Words don’t interfere
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part IV: A smoke raised with the fume of sighs
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) part V: The roving albino
by Jochen Markhorst
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
Billie Joe Armstrong, the foreman of Green Day, one of the most successful punk rock bands of the last thirty years, is not afraid to step out of his comfort zone. In 2013 he records Foreverly with Norah Jones, a re-make of The Everly Brothers’ second album.
Billie Joe follows The Everly Brothers also in terms of guts; in 1958, the brothers, in turn, were pleasantly indifferent to the iron laws of commercial success. The previous year The Everly Brothers (1957) was released, featuring the three singles that brought them to the absolute top: “This Girl Of Mine”, “Bye Bye Love” and especially “Wake Up Little Susie”, the crossover world hit that hits 1 in the country charts, the “Black Singles” R&B hit list and the Billboard Hot 100. The monster hits hereafter (“All I Have To Do Is Dream” and “Bird Dog”) will be included in 1959 on their first Greatest Hits LP, but in between Don and Phil merrily step off Success Road, right in the middle of their first peak; in December 1958 they release the charming Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
The album is ahead of its time. Far ahead of its time. The Everly’s indeed sing the old songs they learned from their father Ike and produce a rootsy tribute to tradition and folklore – without too much exaggeration it could be celebrated as a first Americana album, avant la lettre.
Dylan will have appreciated the album. Woody Guthrie’s “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet”, “Barbara Allen”, Charlie Monroe’s “Down In The Willow Garden”, “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine” by Gene Autry… songs and artists that Dylan has on a marble pedestal. And the opening song is the spark: “Roving Gambler”.
“Roving Gambler” was first recorded in 1927, by Kelly Harrell. Indirectly Dylan already refers to him in 1963, in that remarkable piece For Dave Glover, in the program booklet of the Newport Folk Festival. Remarkable, because Dylan here, like fifty years later in his MusiCare speech, reveals the sources of his songs, acknowledging them by name:
The folk songs showed me the way
They showed me that songs can say something human –
Without “Barbara Allen” there’d be no “Girl from the North Country” –
Without no “Lone Green Valley” there’d be no “Don Think Twice”-
Without no “Jesse James” there’d be no “Davy Moore” –
Without no “Twenty one Years” there’d be no “Walls a red wing”
… and just before that he shares:
I gotta sing “Hollis Brown” –
I can’t sing “John Johannah” cause it’s his story an his people’s story –
I gotta sing “With God On My side” cause it’s my story an my people’s story –
I can’t sing “The Girl I Left Behind” cause I know what it’s like to do it –
I gotta sing “Boots a Spanish Leather” cause I know what it’s like to live it
“John Johannah” is also a Kelly Harrell song Dylan already knows, again thanks to that famous Anthology Of American Folk Music from Harry Smith, the collection with Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “Down On Penny’s Farm” (the template for Dylan’s “Hard Times in New York City”), “John The Revelator” and “When That Great Ship Went Down” and “John Hardy” and all those other songs that have taught him the lingo, and that will echo through his oeuvre for the next sixty years.
Harrell can be found on Volume 1 twice. The second song from Side C is the song about the assassin of President Garfield in 1881, “Charles Guiteau” and will be played by broadcaster Dylan in Theme Time Radio Hour (episode 68, “President’s Day”). The last song of Side B is the song Dylan mentions in For Dave Glover, with the posed – and untrue – addition that he cannot sing that song “because it is his story and the story of his people”. Posed, because John Johannah’s story is a ten-a-penny story of a farm worker who is being exploited; a protagonist like Dylan will perform in “Maggie’s Farm”, and the kind of protagonist under whose skin Dylan has crawled dozens of times in 1963 (“Walkin’ Down The Line”, for example). Still, he never sings “John Johannah”, that much is true. He does steal the melody, though; he uses it for “Long Time Gone” (although the melody also resembles that other song he “can’t sing”; “The Girl I Left Behind”).
But Dylan will sing a third song by Harrell. A song he will sing longer even than any other song – apart from his own songs, of course. “Roving Gambler” has been on his repertoire since 1960 and returns with interruptions until 2002.
2 From El Paso up to Maine
This roving gambler, the gambler in the last verse of “Highway 61 Revisited”, wants to start a new world war out of sheer boredom, but still is better off than his namesake, who spends his days in jail after shooting a card opponent because I saw him deal from the bottom of the deck.
This path the jumpy mind of the rock poet does not follow. As is often the case, Dylan seems to be mainly triggered by topography. The original roving gambler does travel around: in the first verse he is still in Washington, but by the time we arrive at the fifth verse, the gambler has already come quite a way:
I left her in El Paso and I wound up in Maine I met up with a gambling man Got in a poker game
From Washington via El Paso to Maine, back and forth in fact – even if he takes the shortest route (which is not too likely), he is still nearly five thousand miles on his way to that table where he will draw his gun.
Dylan will visit El Paso more often (“She’s Your Lover Now”, “Wanted Man” and “Billy”), but here “Maine” seems to stir Dylan’s stream of consciousness.
In songs, Maine is mostly used like in “Roving Gambler”; as a topographical metaphor for “very far”. Like in “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill” (From San Diego up to Maine) or in Belafonte’s “Farewell Jamaica” (Though I’ve been from Maine to Mexico), but it seems obvious that in the back of Dylan’s mind one of Sinatra’s signature songs plays: “The Lady Is A Tramp”, which opens with
I've wined and dined on Mulligan Stew And never wished for Turkey As I hitched and hiked and grifted too From Maine to Albuquerque
A hint for this guess we find towards the end of Sinatra’s classic:
I go to Coney, the beach is divine I go to ballgames, the bleachers are fine I follow Winchell, and read every line That's why the lady is a tramp
… “The Lady Is A Tramp” is probably the only song in Dylan’s baggage with that atypical word bleachers, which appears so alienating in the penultimate line of this last “Highway 61 Revisited” verse. Sinatra also sings I like a prizefight that isn’t a fake in the next verse, which is a link to Dylan’s half boxing reference in this same stanza, to he found a promoter.
Creative and wild, these supposed associations, but roving – tramp – Maine – bleachers is still a fairly straight line. More likely, in any case, than the content-driven interpretations of diligent analysts who cloak themselves in the alleged deeper intention behind he was trying to create a next world war – even in the twenty-first century, there are still plenty of Dylanologists who do recognise a “clear political undertone” herein, see it as an expression of apocalyptic fears, taking “world war” quite literally. Not necessarily nonsensical, but once again, the Nobel Prize speech words of the bard seem more apt than these over-serious analyses here:
I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. (…) But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
“We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61”… yup. Sounds good.
3 Complexion much too white
Although “Highway 61 Revisited” is one of the many, many highlights of the Golden Five Hundred Days, the days when Dylan is at a mercury peak and produces Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (plus small masterpieces like “Farewell Angelina”, “Positively 4th Street” or “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, the songs rejected for those albums), it is still remarkable that Dylan doesn’t immediately recognise the special magic of the song. It does not appear on the set list of performances in the US, Canada and England in ’65, nor is it played during the world tour of ’66, and only at that Isle Of Wight concert, 31 August 1969, does it have its premiere.
Perhaps the persuasion of the men of The Band is needed. On Dylan’s return to the stages, together with The Band in 1974, the song is ignored for another month, but from the twenty-seventh concert, the evening concert in New York on 31 January, Dylan seems to have given in – the rest of the tour the song has a fixed place, somewhere at the end of the setlist. Apparently, Dylan is still not entirely convinced, though – it will take another ten years, until 1984, before he plays the song again. And it is not until 1987 that he is finally won over; since then it has been on the programme almost continuously. Today “Highway 61 Revisited” is even one of his most frequently played songs. On the list of the tireless Dylan watcher Olof Björner, the song is number three in 2020, with 2,032 performances.
The colleagues were already convinced a long time ago. Irresistible stomp, dazzling drive, brilliant, funny lyrics… the song is often and gladly covered.
The most famous is probably the one by the albino guitar god Johnny Winter, who records a splendid cover for his LP Second Winter (1969), and considers the song since, together with “Johnny B. Goode” of course, as one of his signature songs: until his death he continues to play it at almost every concert.
His last performance shall be in France, Quatorze Juilliet 2014. The fragile seventy-year-old Johnny has to stay seated, opens with a flaming “Johnny B. Goode”, plays a set of eleven classics and then returns for his last encore: Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and finally the very last song he will play in his life: “Highway 61 Revisited”.
He dies two days later in Zurich. Cause of death unknown, but presumably albino related – his complexion was much too white, after all.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece