Once or twice: Highway 61 revisited

 I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.


Once or twice: A review of some of the songs that Bob has performed just once or twice on stage, selecting those of which we have a genuine recording (and “genuine” is important here since I have found a few sites that seem to suggest they are a recording of a live version, but I have my doubts.)  Text and video selection by Tony Attwood.

I know it is singularly nerdish but I am fascinated by the way Bob so often decides to change the key that a particular song is played in – not least because I can’t think of other recording artists that do this so often.   The album version is played one tone lower than the “take 5” version.

The original Highway 51 song was released in 1938 by singer songwriter Curtis Jones who became well known later for “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” and  “Tin Pan Alley”

The significance of Highway 51 is reported as being the road taken by many African Americans who moved from the south to the north of the country.

In Chronicles Bob wrote, “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down into the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

Dylan recorded his version on 22 November 1961 for release on his initial album although the lyrics are those written by Tommy McClennan when he released New Highway 51.  However Dylan varies the chords somewhat.  (According to Wiki).

“Dylan gave a performance at Eve and Mac Mackenzie’s home in New York in December 1961. He has performed the song in public at concerts only twice: at Carnegie Hall on September 22, 1962, and at New York Town Hall on April 12, 1963.”

Recordings of neither of these events appear to exist on the internet – but if you can find a link please do send it in.

But Aaron did find another recording of New Highway 51 which he included in his “other people’s songs” series.  I’ve expressed my thanks to Aaron for all his work on this site recently in Aaron’s obituary, but I just felt today that as it was time for another article in the “Once or Twice” series I’d offer up this recording Aaron found, as a final farewell.

Quite why Bob then didn’t ever want to revise the song on stage, especially having used the name of the song as the title of the album, I don’t know.  The answer is probably buried in a book on Dylan somewhere, but sadly, I can’t findit.

Postcript: as you will see from the comments below Larry has noted the full concerts are available on line – which I had missed.   Here’s a link

Previously in this series we have looked at 


  1. Have you ever been walking down Highway 51
    Have you ever been walking on Highway 5I
    I walk that highway from night time til the dawn
    Well, I know that highway like I know the back of my hand
    Yes, I know that highway, I know the back of my hand
    I’m from up Wisconsin way , down to noman’s land
    (Bob Dylan: Highway 51- as sung at NY Town Hall 63)

  2. Not forgotten is the old 51 Highway:

    ‘D’ for Delia, out of all the evil I’ve done
    I don’t want nobody that’s a-coming for me
    Forced out on Highway 51
    (Curtis Jones: Highway 51 Blues)

    As hinted at by association – cheekily revived in the following death ballad:

    Curtis looking high
    Curtis looking low
    He shot poor Delia down
    With a cruel forty- four
    (Bob Dylan: Delia ~ traditional, Dylan, Jones, et al)

  3. According to the site “Characters Mentioned In Dylan Songs” in regards to Delia and thus Highway 51:

    “It’s suspected that Dylan changed the name of the (actual) killer from Moses to Curtis, as to invoke the day of Christmas ( when the actual Delia was murdered ), if slurred, comes out sounding a bit like Curtis”.

    Some “Dylanologists” might agree with that assertion, but it’s a way beyond all reasonableness many others would suggest

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