Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues

By Aaron Galbraith (in the USA) and Tony Attwood (in England).

Aaron: Highway 51 Blues was composed by American blues pianist Curtis Jones, originally released on a 78 record on January 12, 1938.

Tony: To me this is a perfect blues from the era.  The piano, double bass and guitar mix together in a beautiful way, each complimenting the other rather than seeming to fight for dominance, as happens in some recordings.   The vocals are perfectly sung, without degenerating into over-playing or attempting to dominate; there’s a great melody, and every musician is playing his part (I’m assuming it was “his” – it normally was with these recordings) without getting carried away.  Perfection.

Aaron: Dylan closes out the debut album with his version, which according to Wikipedia uses “the tune from the 1938 recording by Jones. He used lyrics from a 1939 Tommy McClennan recording called “New Highway No.51” for the first and last of the four verses, and utilised a repeating guitar figure from “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers (1957). ”

First here is the Tommy McClennan recording

Tony: Immediately this sounds much more like a traditional 12 bar blues – and I’m reminded of just how famous has that “runs right by my baby’s door” line become.

But for me the McClennan version is one that somehow feels it is always trying to escape from the regular beat of the piece and get faster and faster.   It’s something that happens in a lot of blues, and I am not sure if it is intentional or indeed if it isn’t just my imagination, but it’s how these old recordings sometimes sound to me.

Aaron: And now “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers

Tony: I know I am supposed to be focussing on the music but I just love the fact that a random man wanders across the set around the 26 second mark.  It is just so strange.  But anyway, that’s one of the recordings I heard in my childhood and it remains always in the memory.  But today it does seem rather trite and silly, but then popular music of the type we know today was still only just finding its feet, and of course, blues music was being sanitized to make it “suitable” for a white audience.

Aaron: So if you put all that together you should come up with the Dylan version

Tony: I think I played this to death when I first got the album, and being not only from England, but also living in a somewhat behind-the-times shire county, and indeed being just about the only kid in the school who had even heard of Dylan, let alone like him, this was my liberation.  I didn’t get to discuss the music with anyone.   And I don’t recall the local library having any books on the blues either.  But now I could hear it.

Aaron: Here is one more recent version I kind of like – Mark Browning from 2001 Ballads, Love Songs & Gasoline. This version uses all the Dylan changes

Tony:  Oh Aaron – thank you.  I’ve never heard this before.  I’m not sure about the affectation of the outpouring of breath occasionally, but the re-interpretation of Dylan’s interpretation is great fun.  It keeps the guitar playing under control but gives us something new, especially in the instrumental solo.   Great fun.  Not for the first time I am indebted to you for expanding my knowledge.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  33. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues


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