Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited [Record 96]
Highway 61 Revisited is the sixth studio album by the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on August 30, 1965 by Columbia Records. Having until then recorded mostly acoustic music, Dylan used rock musicians as his backing band on every track of the album, except for the closing 11-minute ballad, “Desolation Row”. Critics have focused on the innovative way in which Dylan combined driving, blues-based music with the subtlety of poetry to create songs that captured the political and cultural chaos of contemporary America. Author Michael Gray has argued that in an important sense the 1960s “started” with this album.
Leading with the hit single “Like a Rolling Stone”, the album features songs that Dylan has continued to perform live over his long career, including “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. He named the album after the major American highway which connected his birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, to southern cities famed for their musical heritage, including St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and the Delta blues area of Mississippi.
Highway 61 Revisited peaked at number three in the United States charts and number four in the United Kingdom. The album was ranked number four on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. “Like a Rolling Stone” was a top-10 hit in several countries, and was listed at number one on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Two other songs, “Desolation Row” and “Highway 61 Revisited”, were listed at number 187 and number 373 respectively.
1. Like a Rolling Stone.
2. Tombstone Blues.
3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.
4. From a Buick 6.
5. Ballad of a Thin Man.
6. Queen Jane Approximately.
7. Highway 61 Revisited.
8. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.
9. Desolation Row.
Dylan and Highway 61: In his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan described the kinship he felt with the route that supplied the title of his sixth album: “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 in to 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.”
While he was growing up in the 1950s, Highway 61 stretched from Duluth, where Dylan was born, through St. Paul, and down to the Mississippi delta. Along the way, the route passed near the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Elvis Presley, and Charley Patton. The “empress of the blues”, Bessie Smith, died after sustaining serious injuries in an automobile accident on Highway 61. Critic Mark Polizzotti points out that blues legend Robert Johnson is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil at the highway’s crossroads with Route 49. The highway had also been the subject of several blues recordings, notably Roosevelt Sykes’ “Highway 61 Blues” (1932) and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “61 Highway” (1964).
Dylan has stated that he had to overcome considerable resistance at Columbia Records to give the album its title. He told biographer Robert Shelton: “I wanted to call that album Highway 61 Revisited. Nobody understood it. I had to go up the fucking ladder until finally the word came down and said: ‘Let him call it what he wants to call it’.” Michael Gray has suggested that the very title of the album represents Dylan’s insistence that his songs are rooted in the traditions of the blues: “Indeed the album title Highway 61 Revisited announces that we are in for a long revisit, since it is such a long, blues-travelled highway. Many bluesmen had been there before [Dylan], all recording versions of a blues called ‘Highway 61’.”
Background: In May 1965, Dylan returned from his tour of England feeling tired and dissatisfied with his material. 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.”
As a consequence of his dissatisfaction, Dylan wrote 20 pages of verse he later described as a “long piece of vomit”. He reduced this to a song with four verses and a chorus—”Like a Rolling Stone”. He told Hentoff that writing and recording the song washed away his dissatisfaction, and restored his enthusiasm for creating music. Describing the experience to Robert Hilburn in 2004, nearly 40 years later, Dylan said: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that … You don’t know what it means except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
Highway 61 Revisited was recorded in two blocks of recording sessions that took place in Studio A of Columbia Records, located in Midtown Manhattan. The first block, June 15 and June 16, was produced by Tom Wilson and resulted in the single “Like a Rolling Stone”. On July 25, Dylan performed his controversial electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, where some of the crowd booed his performance. Four days after Newport, Dylan returned to the recording studio. From July 29 to August 4, he and his band completed recording Highway 61 Revisited, but under the supervision of a new producer, Bob Johnston.
Recording sessions, June 15–16: Tom Wilson produced the initial recording sessions for Highway 61 Revisited on June 15–16, 1965. Dylan was backed by Bobby Gregg on drums, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass, Paul Griffin on piano, and Frank Owens on guitar. For lead guitar, the singer recruited Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The musicians began the June 15 session by recording a fast version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and the song “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”, which was omitted from the Highway 61 album. Dylan and his band next attempted to record “Like a Rolling Stone”; at this early stage, Dylan’s piano dominated the backing, which was in 3/4 time. “Barbed Wire Fence”, the fast version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh”, and an early take of “Like a Rolling Stone” were eventually released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
The musicians returned to Studio A the following day, when they devoted almost the entire session to recording “Like a Rolling Stone”. Present on this occasion was Al Kooper, a young musician invited by Wilson to observe, but who wanted to play on the session. Kooper managed to sit in on the session, and he improvised an organ riff that, critics Greil Marcus and Mark Polizzotti argue, became a crucial element of the recording. The fourth take was ultimately selected as the master, but Dylan and the band recorded eleven more takes. After “Like a Rolling Stone” had been completed, he improvised a short unreleased song, bootlegged under the title “Lunatic Princess Revisited”, but copyrighted as “Why Do You Have to Be So Frantic?”. Critic Clinton Heylin calls the song a “weird little one-verse fragment”, but claims that the riff is the blueprint of the singer’s 1979 evangelical composition, “Slow Train”.
Recording sessions, July 29 – August 4: To create the material for Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan spent a month writing in his new home in the Byrdcliffe artists’ colony of Woodstock in upstate New York. When he returned to Studio A on July 29, he was backed by the same musicians with Harvey Brooks on bass replacing Joe Mach and his producer had changed from Tom Wilson to Bob Johnston.
Their first session together was devoted to three songs. After recording several takes each of “Tombstone Blues”, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” and “Positively 4th Street”, masters were successfully recorded. “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” were included in the final album, but “Positively 4th Street” was issued as a single-only release. At the close of the July 29 session, Dylan attempted to record “Desolation Row”, accompanied by Al Kooper on electric guitar and Harvey Brooks on bass. There was no drummer, as the drummer had gone home. This electric version was eventually released in 2005, on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7.
On July 30, Dylan and his band returned to Studio A and recorded three songs. A master take of “From a Buick 6” was recorded and later included on the final album, but most of the session was devoted to “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” Dylan was unsatisfied with the results and set the song aside for a later date; it was eventually re-recorded with the Hawks in October.
After Dylan and Kooper spent the weekend in Woodstock writing chord charts for the songs, sessions resumed at Studio A on August 2. “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, and “Ballad of a Thin Man” were recorded successfully and masters were selected for the album.
One final session was held on August 4, again at Studio A. Most of the session was devoted to completing “Desolation Row”. Johnston has related that Nashville musician Charlie McCoy was visiting New York, and he invited McCoy to play guitar at the session. According to some sources, seven takes of “Desolation Row” were recorded, and takes six and seven were spliced together for the master recording.
The resulting album, Highway 61 Revisited, has been described as “Dylan’s first purely ‘rock’ album”, a realization of his wish to leave his old music format behind and move on from his all-acoustic first four albums and half-acoustic, half-electric fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. Documentary director D. A. Pennebaker, who filmed Dylan on his acoustic UK tour in May 1965, has said: “I didn’t know that he was going to leave acoustic. I did know that he was getting a little dragged by it.”
Side one: Highway 61 Revisited opens with “Like a Rolling Stone”, which has been described as revolutionary in its combination of electric guitar licks, organ chords, and Dylan’s voice, “at once so young and so snarling … and so cynical”. Michael Gray characterized “Like a Rolling Stone” as “a chaotic amalgam of blues, impressionism, allegory, and an intense directness: ‘How does it feel?'” Polizzotti writes that the composition is notable for avoiding traditional themes of popular music, such as romance, and instead expresses resentment and a yearning for revenge. It has been suggested that Miss Lonely, the song’s central character, is based on Edie Sedgwick, a socialite and actress in the Factory scene of pop artist Andy Warhol. Critic Mike Marqusee has written that this composition is “surely a Dylan cameo”, and that its full poignancy becomes apparent upon the realization that “it is sung, at least in part, to the singer himself: he’s the one ‘with no direction home’.” “Like A Rolling Stone” reached number two in the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1965, and was a top-10 hit in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The fast-paced, two-chord blues song “Tombstone Blues”, driven by Michael Bloomfield’s lead guitar, uses a parade of historical characters—outlaw Belle Starr, biblical temptress Delilah, Jack the Ripper (represented in this song as a successful businessman), John the Baptist (described here as a torturer), and blues singer Ma Rainey whom Dylan humorously suggests shared a sleeping bag with composer Beethoven—to sketch an absurdist account of contemporary America. For critics Mark Polizzotti and Andy Gill, the reality behind the song is the then-escalating Vietnam War; both writers hear the “king of the Philistines” who sends his slaves “out to the jungle” as a reference to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
On July 29, 1965, Dylan and his band resumed recording “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. Tony Glover, who observed the recording session, has recalled that Dylan re-worked on the song at the piano while the other musicians took a lunch break. Critic Sean Egan writes that by slowing down the tempo, Dylan transformed the song from an “insufferably smart-alec number into a slow, tender, sensual anthem”. Gill points out that the lyrics reveal the singer’s talent for borrowing from old blues numbers, adapting the lines “Don’t the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea/ Don’t my gal look good when she’s coming after me” from “Solid Road” by bluesmen Brownie McGhee and Leroy Carr.
Allmusic critic Bill Janovitz describes “From a Buick 6” as a “raucous, up-tempo blues”, which is played “almost recklessly”. The song opens with a snare shot similar to the beginning of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Partially based on Sleepy John Estes’ 1930 song “Milk Cow Blues”, the guitar part is patterned after older blues riffs by Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Big Joe Williams. Robert Shelton hears the song as “an earthy tribute to another funky earth-mother”, while for Heylin it is close to filler material; he argues that only through the musicians’ performance is Dylan able to “convince us he is doing more than just listing the number of ways in which this ‘graveyard woman’ is both a lifesaver and a death-giver”.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” is driven by Dylan’s piano, which contrasts with “the spooky organ riffs” played by Al Kooper. Marqusee describes the song as one of “the purest songs of protest ever sung”, as it looks at the media and its inability to understand both the singer and his work. He writes that the song became the anthem of an in-group, “disgusted by the old, excited by the new … elated by their discovery of others who shared their feelings”, with its refrain “Something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr Jones?” epitomizing the “hip exclusivity” of the burgeoning counterculture. Robert Shelton describes the song’s central character, Mr Jones, as “one of Dylan’s greatest archetypes”, characterizing him as “a Philistine … superficially educated and well bred but not very smart about the things that count”.
Side two: Polizzotti, in his study of Highway 61 Revisited, writes that the opening track of Side Two, “Queen Jane Approximately” is in a similar vein to “Like a Rolling Stone”, but the song offers “a touch of sympathy and even comfort in place of relentless mockery”. The song is structured as a series of ABAB quatrain verses, with each verse followed by a chorus that is simply a repeat of the last line of each verse: “Won’t you come see me Queen Jane?”. Gill calls this song “the least interesting track” on Highway 61, but praises the piano ascending the scale during the harmonica break as an evocation of “the stifling nature of an upper class existence”. “Queen Jane Approximately” was released as the B-side of Dylan’s “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” single in early 1966.
Dylan commences the title song of his album, “Highway 61 Revisited”, with the words “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on'”. As Gill has pointed out, Abraham was the name of Dylan’s father, which makes the singer the son whom God wants killed. Gill comments that it is befitting that this song, celebrating a highway central to the history of the blues, is a “raucous blues boogie”. He notes that the scope of the song broadens to make the highway a road of endless possibilities, peopled by dubious characters and culminating in a promoter who “seriously considers staging World War III out on Highway 61”. The song is punctuated by the sound of a “Siren Whistle”, credited as “Police Car” to Dylan in the album liner notes. Highway 61 Revisited” was released as the B-side of his “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” single on November 30, 1965.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has six verses and no chorus. The lyrics describe a nightmarish experience in Juarez, Mexico, where, in Shelton’s words, “our anti-hero stumbles amid sickness, despair, whores and saints.” He battles with corrupt authorities, alcohol and drugs before resolving to return to New York City. In this song, critics have heard literary references to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. The backing musicians, Bobby Gregg on drums, Mike Bloomfield on electric guitar, and two pianists, Paul Griffin on tack piano and Al Kooper on Hohner Pianet, produce a mood that, for Gill, perfectly complements the “enervated tone” of the lyrics. Heylin notes that Dylan took great care—sixteen takes—to get the effect he was after, with lyrics that subtly ” the edge of reason”.
Dylan concludes Highway 61 Revisited with the sole acoustic exception to his rock album. Gill has characterized “Desolation Row” as “an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters”. These include historical celebrities such as Einstein and Nero, the biblical characters Noah and Cain and Abel, the Shakespearian figures of Ophelia and Romeo, ending with literary titans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The song opens with a report that “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”, and adds “the circus is in town”. Polizzotti connects this song with the lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota, which was Dylan’s birthplace, and describes “Desolation Row” as a cowboy song, “the ‘Home On The Range’ of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America”. In the penultimate verse, the passengers on the Titanic are shouting “Which side are you on?”. Shelton suggests Dylan is asking, “What difference which side you’re on if you’re sailing on the Titanic?” and is thus satirizing “simpleminded political commitment”.
Outtakes: Eleven outtakes from the Highway 61 Revisited sessions have subsequently been released on the Columbia and Legacy record labels. The first proper non-album release from the sessions was the single “Positively 4th Street”, although on an early pressing of the single Columbia used another Highway 61 outtake, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, by mistake. “Crawl Out Your Window” was subsequently re-recorded with the Hawks in October, and released as a single in November 1965. Columbia accidentally released an alternate take of “From a Buick 6” on an early pressing of Highway 61 Revisited, and this version continued to appear on the Japanese release for several years. Other officially released outtakes include alternate takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, and a previously unreleased song, “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. Alternate takes of “Desolation Row”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Tombstone Blues” and a still different take of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” were released on The Bootleg Series Volume 7. Excerpts from several different takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” appeared on the Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM, released in February 1995. Several other alternate takes of various songs were recorded during the Highway 61 sessions but remain unreleased, as does the composition “Why Do You Have to Be So Frantic?”.
Packaging: The cover artwork was photographed by Daniel Kramer several weeks before the recording sessions. Kramer captured Dylan sitting on the stoop of the apartment of his manager, Albert Grossman, located in Gramercy Park, New York, placing Dylan’s friend Bob Neuwirth behind Dylan “to give it extra color”. Dylan wears a Triumph motorcycle T-shirt under a blue and purple silk shirt, holding his Ray-Ban sunglasses in his right hand. Photographer Kramer commented in 2010 on the singer’s expression: “He’s hostile, or it’s a hostile moodiness. He’s almost challenging me or you or whoever’s looking at it: ‘What are you gonna do about it, buster?'”
As he had on his previous three albums, Dylan contributed his own writing to the back cover of Highway 61 Revisited, in the shape of freeform, surrealist prose: “On the slow train time does not interfere & at the Arabian crossing waits White Heap, the man from the newspaper & behind him the hundred inevitable made of solid rock & stone.” One critic has pointed out the close similarity of these notes to the stream of consciousness, experimental novel Tarantula, which Dylan was writing during 1965 and 1966.
Reception and legacy: In the British music press, initial reviews of Highway 61 expressed both bafflement and admiration for the record. New Musical Express critic Allen Evans wrote: “Another set of message songs and story songs sung in that monotonous and tuneless way by Dylan which becomes quite arresting as you listen.” The Melody Maker LP review section, by an anonymous critic, commented: “Bob Dylan’s sixth LP, like all others, is fairly incomprehensible but nevertheless an absolute knock-out.” The English poet Philip Larkin, reviewing the album for The Daily Telegraph, wrote that he found himself “well rewarded” by the record: “Dylan’s cawing, derisive voice is probably well suited to his material … and his guitar adapts itself to rock (‘Highway 61’) and ballad (‘Queen Jane’). There is a marathon ‘Desolation Row’ which has an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words.”
In September 1965, the US trade journal Billboard also praised the album, and predicted big sales for it: “Based upon his singles hit ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Dylan has a top-of-the-chart-winner in this package of his off-beat, commercial material.” The album peaked at number three on the US Billboard 200 chart of top albums, and number four on the UK albums charts. In the US, Highway 61 was certificated as a gold record in August 1967, and platinum in August 1997.
Highway 61 Revisited has remained among the most highly acclaimed of Dylan’s works. Biographer Anthony Scaduto praises its rich imagery, and describes it as “one of the most brilliant pop records ever made. As rock, it cuts through to the core of the music—a hard driving beat without frills, without self-consciousness.” Michael Gray calls Highway 61 “revolutionary and stunning, not just for its energy and panache but in its vision: fusing radical, electrical music … with lyrics that were light years ahead of anyone else’s; Dylan here unites the force of blues-based rock’n’roll with the power of poetry. The whole rock culture, the whole post-Beatle pop-rock world, and so in an important sense the 1960s started here.”
Among Dylan’s contemporaries, Phil Ochs was impressed by Highway 61, explaining: “It’s the kind of music that plants a seed in your mind and then you have to hear it several times. And as you go over it you start to hear more and more things. He’s done something that’s left the whole field ridiculously in the back of him.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine described Highway 61 as “one of those albums that changed everything”, and placed it at number four in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The Rolling Stone list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” ranked “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Desolation Row” and “Like a Rolling Stone” at number 373, number 187, and number one, respectively. In 2012, The Best 100 Albums of All Time book ranked Highway 61 Revisited as the greatest album of all time.
Most of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited have remained important, in varying degrees, to Dylan’s live performances since 1965. According to his website, he has played “Like a Rolling Stone” over 2,000 times, “Highway 61 Revisited” more than 1,700 times, “Ballad of a Thin Man” over 1,000 times, and most of the other songs between 150 and 500 times.
The influence of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited can be heard in many cover versions. “Like a Rolling Stone” has been recorded by artists including the Rolling Stones, on their live album Stripped, David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Heaven and Hull, Johnny Winter on Raisin’ Cane, and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. My Chemical Romance’s version of “Desolation Row” was featured in the film Watchmen in 2009. The song has also been covered by the Grateful Dead on their album Postcards of the Hanging. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Nina Simone and Neil Young.
- Polizzotti writes that Wilson and Dylan had a falling out during the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone”, perhaps over the prominence of Kooper’s organ in the mix. When questioned by Jann Wenner in 1969 about the switch in producers, Dylan gave a deadpan answer: “All I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there—I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there—and I looked up one day, and Bob was there [laughs].”
- Highway 61 Revisited—Discover: Liner Notes do not list Sam Lay among the personnel, but Heylin 1995, does.