The lyrics and the music: Highway 61 Revisited


“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.


Highway 61 Revisited is one of just three songs that Dylan has performed live, 2000 times or more.  The other two are “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All along the watchtower”.

So journalists seeking a shortcut in terms of writing about the piece are likely to call it “iconic” – a symbol of Dylan’s compositions worthy of veneration; a symbol of the 628 songs Dylan has composed or co-composed.

And yes of course it holds a special place in our minds, the title song of the LP and (if you really have a good memory for irrelevant pieces of information) the B side to the single “Can you please crawl out your window”.

The opening line itself is iconic, “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’,” – no one surely has ever written an opening line like that.   You can’t be a Dylan fan without knowing it.

But what of the music?  And it is interesting, for although I am sure there must be some articles on the music of this song, I can’t immediately bring any to mind.   And indeed such is the historic and contemporary power of the song, I had to play it through in my head to check that my memory how the song is constructed was right.

And yes, the answer is dead simple: it is an extended 12 bar blues, based on the three standard chords of the blues and rock n roll.  What of course distinguishes it from every other 12 bar blues (the fundamental music of the blues and early rock n roll) is the lyrics.

For the lyrics, from the off, are so outrageous, that it is hard to take in what the music is actually doing.  It is there, supporting the lyrics.   I mean, how would you write music to the opening lines,

Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"God said, "No", Abe said, "What?"

Build in complexity to the music and the sheer oddity of those lines in any context (let alone in a rock song, or a piece of popular music) would be lost.

And this is part of Bob’s unerring grasp of his art.  It may sound dead simple to say, but many a songwriter has failed to get it: if you want a piece of popular music that is going to be grasped at once, you can make the lyrics complex, or you can make the music complex, but not both.

Of course many songs do make both the lyrics and music complex at once – Bob did it with the wonderful “Angelina” for example, but then he is not aiming at writing a blockbuster that everyone will get the moment they hear it.  (You try singing the opening lines of “Angelina” from memory, or even after listening to it once through, and you’ll find it rather hard).   On the other hand with “Like a Rolling Stone” it is the melody that is simple but the lyrics which are complex.

So Bob wanted a blockbuster both in terms of the lyrics and in terms of the music.   That meant a solid beat with a bounce in it, a simple 12 bar blues construction using the classic three chords, and one hell of an opening line, which of course we got.

But then there is a problem, because we all know the 12 bar blues construction from classic blues songs with the repeated first line, but Bob wanted to make an enormous impact than that would allow, as of course he did with

God said, "You can do what you want Abe, butThe next time you see me comin' you better run"God said, "Where do you want this killin' done?"Out on Highway 61
Out of interest, while writing this little piece I asked a few friends who are Dylan fans if they could quote me the first verse of the song, and each one could.  Because no one has ever written a line like “God said to Abraham kill me a son” in a rock song before, let alone as the opening line.
But then I asked them for the second verse.   And yes a couple of pals got it – but it took a bit of time.   Because when you think about it, the second verse doesn’t have the impact that the first song has.
Georgia Sam, he had a bloody noseWelfare Department wouldn't give him no clothesHe asked poor Howard, "Where can I go?"Howard said, "There's only one place I know"
The point is we don’t know who these people are, or why they are in the song, any more than we know what the importance of “40 red white and blue shoe strings” actually is.  Something patriotic I guess, and maybe if I was American I would know, but being British, I don’t.
But this doesn’t matter because the format of the song is now set.  We have the feeling of the beat and the chord changes (even if we have no understanding of what the chord changes are, or what a 12 bar blues is), Dylan has within one verse given us the feel of the song.
Of course when we go back to the original recording we also get the whistle, and a superb keyboard part which keeps running the background and gives us a lot of the energy.  You maybe can’t remember what the keyboard actually does, but really it contrasts with the almost laconic way in which Bob half recites half sings the song.  It serves a real musical purpose of pointing out musically, the contradictions within the lyrics.
No matter how well you know the piece just play that original again (that’s the link above) and focus for once not on Dylan’s lyrics but on the music playing behind – particularly the piano.  This is pure energy, and indeed brilliant playing.   We might not immediately notice it, but if Bob, the backing musicians and the production had not got that right in terms of musical energy, I suspect “iconic” would never be a word that we used about this song.
Here it is from 2019.   The whistle has long gone, but the energy is still there.  And that is the essence of this piece even all these years later.   Even the instrumental break is a gem and a half.  It’s four minutes of pure inspiration.

The lyrics and the music: the series…


  1. A businessman ties to make money out of his customers’ American patriotism …. the red,
    white, and blue of the Ameican flag

    Even without music, most all American and Canadain readers would have no trouble understanding the meaning of these lines

  2. Some of the greatest opening lines in music history, I fully agree. Right up there with, ‘Well she was just seventeen/ And you know what I mean..’ Your comment re: the complexity of lyrics and the complexity of music stopped me in my tracks. Most insightful, which is why I enjoy visiting your site. Thank you for all that the work that you do here.

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