Bob Dylan- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Highway 61 Revisited
Released August 30, 1965
Recorded June- August 1965
Highway 61 Revisited is the sixth studio album by Bob Dylan and the fourth one featured on 30 Albums for 30 Years. Since I gave many details on Dylan in previous episodes (submissions), I will summarize his life to this point very briefly. Dylan is a Jewish kid from Minnesota who became obsessed with and inspired by Woody Guthrie's songwriting and vocal style. He became a significant voice for a generation of college-aged and educated Americans looking for music with meaningful lyrics. Dylan began moving towards a more electric sound at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th, 1965, angering his core folk fans.
Bob Dylan was clearly one of the most influential songwriters and artists of the mid-1960s. His protest music and thought-provoking lyrics were unmatched at the time. Highway 61 Revisited is the first genuinely electric album for the recently converted acoustic folky. The record is characterized by Dylan's blending of poetry and electric blues. With the success of the opening track “Like A Rolling Stone,” the record peaked at number three on the US Billboard Charts and number four in the U.K. As far as sales, the album is a certified platinum record.
Highway 61 connects Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born), to major musical cultural hubs like St. Louis, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. It's the same highway where Bessie Smith had her fatal car accident. It's also the same highway in which blues legend Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at a point where the highway connects to Route 49.
The album was created after Dylan returned from a tour of England, leaving him disillusioned and exhausted. He told journalist Nat Hentoff: "I was going to quit singing. I was very drained." The singer added, "It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don't dig you." The album was recorded over several sessions, the first from June 15-16, 1965, with Bobby Gregg on drums, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass, Paul Griffin on piano, Frank Owens (guitar), and Mike Bloomfield (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, guitar). Al Kooper (Blood Sweat and Tears) joined on June 16th to play the organ. The second session happened between July 29 and August 4, after Dylan spent a month in his Woodstock home to write more materials. For these session dates, Harvey Brooks replaced Macho on bass, and Tom Wilson, who produced the earlier sessions, was replaced by Bob Johnston. Rolling Stones ranks the album as number 18 of all time, and “Like a Rolling Stone” is currently listed by the magazine as the fourth-best song ever, but for several years, it was listed as number one!
I have discussed my overall thoughts on Dylan As in past episodes, but I will briefly do so again. I believe that as a technical musician, Dylan can do little more than service his own songs, and his voice can be a bit irritating, and his harmonica playing irks the hell out of me. Some have interpreted these comments as representing an overall dislike for Dylan, which is untrue. His lyrics are incredible, and some of his songs are among my favorites from the era, although admittedly, there are times when I prefer cover versions. So, just to be clear, I am not a Dylan hater and couldn't imagine or want to imagine a world in which his music didn't exist. Am I critical of some of his choices? Absolutely, but overall, I am a fan.
(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)
Track 1- “Like A Rolling Stone” is the big hit from the record. Columbia Records was not happy with the length of the tune, which runs over 6:00 minutes, and the electric sound, but Dylan didn't care. The song was leaked and made it to radio play before Columbia agreed to release it. “Like A Rolling Stone” reached #2 on the US Billboard Charts. It's been covered by Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Green Day. “Like A Rolling Stone” ranked #1 on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2010 but fell to 4 in the 2021 list with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” “Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power," and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” topped the list.
As far as the lyrics, the full meaning is a bit unknown; here is what Dylan had to say in a 1966 Playboy interview:
Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation ... But 'Like a Rolling Stone' changed it all. I mean, it was something that I myself could dig. It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you don't dig you.
In 1966, Dylan described its genesis to journalist Jules Segal:
It was ten pages long. It wasn't called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper, all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end, it wasn't hatred; it was telling someone something they didn't know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge that's a better word. I had never thought of it as a song until one day; I was at the piano, and on the paper, it was singing, "How does it feel?" in a slow-motion pace.
Many have speculated about the identity of the song’s main character, “Miss Lonely.” While the figure may be made up of an amalgamation of several people, many names have been suggested as to the identity of the central figure, from model Edie Sedgwick (a former socialite, model, a close associate of Andy Warhol for some time, and possibly a short term lover of Dylan) to folk heroine Joan Baez. Musically, “Like A Rolling Stone'' offers some pretty cool organic and busy underlying textures, with a cool blend of organ by Al Kooper, electric guitar by Mike Bloomfield, piano by Frank Owens, bass guitar by Joe Macho, drums by Bobby Gregg and tambourine by Bruce Langhorne. Of course, Dylan has to throw in some harmonica in there.
Track 2- “Tombstone Blues” is an uptempo number that refers to many historical characters like Paul Revere, outlaw Belle Starr, temptress Delilah, Jack the Ripper, John the Baptist, Beethoven, and blues singer Ma Rainey. The song has been analyzed as a commentary on the Vietnam War or general abuse of power, but with many Dylan lyrics from the time, the meaning is unclear and surreal. Still, it’s fun to try and understand what he is trying to say. No matter what he sings, it always sounds important. In the sleeve of the book Biography, Dylan commented that he had felt he had “broken through with this song, that nothing like it had been done before. He also said that he had been inspired by an overheard bar-room conversation between police officers about the death of criminals. Basically, Dylan’s brain is wired differently, so who knows what’s going on underneath that curly-haired scalp of his.
The refrain of “Mama’s in the factory, she ain't got no shoes, Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food, I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues” offers some strong imagery. Musically, the song is a blend of folk rock, blues, and garage rock. Mike Bloomfield plays some pretty incredible blues licks throughout, and bassist Joe Macho Jr. and drummer Bobby Gregg hold the piece together. (*)
Track 3- “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is a bit of an old-timey honkey tonkish, country-style blues made from lines of old blues songs mixed with Dylan lyrics. You can hear some Hank Williams influence in this one. It has been suggested that the lyrics are from the perspective of someone who is sexually frustrated. The musicians do a fine job creating a specific feel for the tune. This includes pianist Paul Griffin, bassist Harvey Brooks, and the electric guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Dylan's harmonica playing is also not bad on this one. (*)
Track 4- “From a Buick 6.” The song is an uptempo blues inspired by Sleepy John Estes’ 1930 blues classic “Milk Cow Blues.” Many feel the song is a tribute to a woman, an “Earth Mother” character who takes care of her man, but with many Dylan songs, there is speculation as to the actual meaning. Dylan’s harmonica playing is awful on this one.
Track 5- “Ballad of a Thin Man” might be my favorite tune on the album. The song revolves around a character named Mr. Jones, who seems to be in some sort of haze or finds himself in some strange situations. Maybe he is in some sort of psychedelic state. Either way, things are weird for Mr. Jones at that moment. Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Bobby Gregg on drums, Harvey Brooks on bass, and particularly Al Kooper on organ do a fine job creating a slow, hazy groove. Dylan’s style of vocalization works perfectly on this one.
In a 1965 interview for Esquire, Dylan said that Mr. Jones is, in fact, a real person he encountered.
He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name,” he explained. “Like I saw him come into the room one night, and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was, and he said, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ Then I asked this cat, ‘Doesn’t he do anything but put his eyes in his pocket?’ And he told me, ‘He puts his nose on the ground.’ It’s all there, it’s a true story.” Dylan always had a cheeky nature when describing his music. Either way, there is” something happening, and I don’t know what it is, but I dig it for sure. (*)
Track 1- “Queen Jane Approximately.” This is a medium-slow folk rock with some blues inflection. Once again, no one is totally clear as to the meaning of the song or who Queen Jane is. As for the lyrics, they have a general sense of sadness and disillusion surrounding Queen Jane. It has been suggested that Queen Jane is the folk singer Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had a complex relationship. It could also be Queen Jane Grey, who was queen of England for nine days before she was decapitated by an axe at age 16. In an interview, the often combative Dylan told journalist Nora Ephron that “Queen Jane is a man.” Dylan’s harmonica playing at the end of this piece is insufferable.
Track 2- “Highway 61 Revisited'' is one of the album's strengths. The song begins with a siren whistle before moving into an uptempo blues. The song references many characters. First mentioned is Abraham and the biblical story in which God tells Abraham to kill his son Issac. The next verse mentions Georgia Sam, who is down on his luck and can’t be helped by the welfare department and is told to travel Highway 61. Georgia Sam may be inspired by bluesman Blind Willie McTell, who occasionally used the name Georgia Sam while recording. Next up is Mack The Finger, holding forty red, white, and blue shoestrings. He asks Louie the King what to do, and the King tells him to take himself and the strings of his shoes to Highway 61. The fourth verse references the “fifth daughter on the twelve night,” the “first father,” “the second mother,” and “the seventh son.” which is most likely a biblical reference. The final verse introduces the rovin’ gambler, who is trying to create “the next world war” in verse five. How does it all tie together? With Dylan, who the hell knows? (+)
Track 3- “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a song without a chorus that describes the narrator's vision in Mexico, where he comes upon scenes of despair surrounded by desperate people, corruption, alcohol, and drugs. At the end, the narrator announces that he is “Going Back to New York City; I do believe I’ve had enough.” The line was sampled for the Beastie Boys' “Finger Lickin Good.” The song makes several literary references, including Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, and Artur Rimbaud's “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy).”
During a concert in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, in April 1966, Dylan said of the song:
This is, this is called Tom Thumb. This story takes place outside of Mexico City. It begins in Mexico City and ends in Des Moines, Iowa, but it's all about this painter, a quite older fellow; he comes from Juarez, Juarez is down across the Texas border, some few feet, and he's a painter. He's a very well-known painter there, and we all call him Tom Thumb. When Tom Thumb was going through his blue period, this is one of the most important times of his whole life, and he's going to sell many, many paintings now taken from his blue period and this is all about Tom Thumb and his early days and so we name this Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."
Musically, it's pretty simplistic, and of course, part of it is ruined by Dylan’s persistent need to play the harmonica.
Track 4- “Desolation Row.” Strap yourself in because this one is long and surreal. The song returns Dylan to his more acoustic sound with his strumming guitar and the inclusion of some fine lead work by Charlie McCoy with electric bass played by Russ Savakus. When asked where "Desolation Row" was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: "Oh, that's someplace in Mexico, it's across the border. It's noted for its coke factory."
Al Kooper, who played electric guitar on the first recordings of "Desolation Row," suggested that it was located on a stretch of Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, "an area infested with whore houses, sleazy bars, and porno supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption."
With over eleven minutes of lyrics, unpacking them all goes beyond the scope of this work. Dylan has an incredible way of creating short vignettes of characters that move in and out of his songs. The song is certainly ambitious but also very repetitive and ponderous. In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, Dylan claimed that the song is "a minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up, and it had an effect on me just as much as seeing the lady with four legs.”
Highway 61 Revisited is a classic that must be heard by any serious music fan. The album reflects characters, some fictional, some real, some an amalgamation of both. The record shows Dylan's move toward more electric music, blues, country, and infused with his folk stylings. Songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Tin Man,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” rank amongst Dylans' finest achievements.