Standing on the highway: Dylan at the crossroads, and which path he took

By Tony Attwood

There are several versions of how Dylan was introduced to the music of Robert Johnson, and really I don’t think it matters which tale is true – the key fact is that Dylan w as exploring music at the start of his career and then suddenly heard Robert Johnson for the first time.  And it had an impact.

And perhaps for the one time in all this writing about Dylan I can say I have a clear understanding of the feelings he must have had, because I have always defined one of the key moments in my life as being the evening when as a school student I heard Hellhound on my Trail played on a French radio station that I used to listen to from 6pm to 7pm as a 16 year old.  Music on other channels had little or nothing to do with my taste, so with a few mates I had found a station more in keeping with our needs.  And this time I utterly totally couldn’t believe it; my life really did change.

I know that for me, and I suspect for Dylan, what came along was the music of Robert Johnson, not the myths about his life – they came much later.  I didn’t know and didn’t care whether Johnson was born in 1911, 1912, or 1913 or that we only had 29 songs of his recorded or any of that selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads stuff.

What I heard was the extraordinary rhythms and timings that make no sense in terms of classic pop 4/4; this is 12 bar blues that is sometimes 15 bars long sometimes 14, occasionally 12, and all in the same song.  When I came back to it when doing my degree and started analysing other Johnson songs such as Crossroads I had a go at arguing it was in 8/8 time.  I’m not sure I convinced anyone, but I’ve seen a few others reach the same idea, so it’s a possibility.

When I managed to get a copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers I became fascinated  by the rhythms that Robert Johnson used.  I still didn’t have any real interest in the crossroads as a link between Johnson and the Devil, although of course I knew the story by then,  it was always the music for me.  While a lot of people seem to argue about where the actual crossroads were where the meeting apparently took place, that all passed me by – I was still listening to 15 bar songs phasing in and out of 8/8 time.

So when I read, as I did on a website in preparing this note, that “Without the Faustian legend of Robert Johnson”, Cross Road Blues would be remembered just as “snippet of blues history and music culture”, I could never agree.   The music itself is a staggering piece of playing, and needs to be remembered for that.

The inspiration for Dylan’ “Standing on the highway” is clear in the lyrics

Mmmmm, standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

although Dylan travels in a different, but still blues, direction in his song.

By the time Dylan heard it Elmore James had recorded it a couple of times, but once Dylan had taken it as a starting point (even though the song didn’t appear on the pre-bootleg albums) he continued with the theme, and his love for the blues.   Even when Rolling Stone had Clapton’s version at number three in the “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” but Dylan wanted to move somewhere else.

Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” was recorded at the final recording session on November 27, 1936 – and literally is about the difficulty for a hitch hiker trying to get a lift before the sun goes down.  That’s the literal interpretation – we can all make up more in relation to the later verses where being stranded at the crossroads becomes the metaphor for being stranded in life and “sinkin’ down”.  Some writers have Robert Johnson “fascinated with and probably obsessed by supernatural imagery,” so that can be added too.

So back to Dylan and February/March 1962 – when he performed his derivation of Crossroads on a radio show  we can see exactly where Dylan is coming from.

Well, I’m standing on the highway
Trying to bum a ride, Trying to bum a ride
Trying to bum a ride
Well, I’m standing on the highway
Trying to bum a ride, Trying to bum a ride
Trying to bum a ride
Nobody seem to know me
Everybody pass me by

The Dylan song is strong on the metaphor of the crossroads…

One road’s going to the bright lights
The other’s going down to my grave

and by the fourth verse…

Well, I’m standing on the highway
Watching my life roll by

Although in verse five…

Please mister, pick me up, I swear I ain’t gonna kill nobody’s kids

he really seems to have moved off to the edge.

My own personal view is that Dylan never took this song further because he got much closer to the musical essence of the Crossroads concept two or three months later with Down the Highway.  It’s not so much the fact that he is still stuck out on the highway but the way he plays the accompaniment.  And even that isn’t Robert Johnson – it is just the jagged edge of Down the Highway seems so much closer to Robert Johnson than this slightly earlier song.

Well, I’m walkin’ down the highway
With my suitcase in my hand
Yes, I’m walkin’ down the highway
With my suitcase in my hand
Lord, I really miss my baby
She’s in some far-off land

In the classification of types of song that Dylan wrote, I’ve put it as a Song of Leaving, although that isn’t quite right – but its the closest I can get without creating another category.

1962 was the year when Dylan tried out everything possible, and then some.  Just look at the songs in chronological order for that year.

Not just an amazing collection of songs but also an amazing variety of ideas.

All the songs on this site

The songs of the 60s in chronological order

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