I don’t have a strong opinion whether a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan should receive a Nobel prize in literature. I lean toward ‘no.’ It’s not because I question his genius or because of his apparent reluctance to acknowledge the honor. My argument is he is already so well established that he doesn’t need it. On the other hand, the prize could put a relatively less known writer on the map beyond the literary world.
But the ongoing debate about whether or not Dylan should accept the award definitely made me pay closer attention to his music. Combined with my new quest to listen more to entire albums rather than just an artist’s greatest hits, this led me to Highway 61 Revisited, which is No. 4 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
I’ve always liked what you could consider obvious Dylan gems, such as Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, Lay Lady Lay, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Hurricane, to name a few. But I will admit that it was not until recently that I started listening to some of his albums in their entirety.
In fact, a previous attempt in the early 199os to get more deeply into Dylan’s music ended with disappointment. Inspired by a good friend and big Dylan fan, I decided to see a Dylan show. Leading up it to get into the mood, I listened to Before the Flood, Dylan’s excellent 1974 live album with The Band, which essentially is a greatest hits compilation. But the only song I recognized during the concert was Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Strangely, it also was the opener of the show. All other tunes were unknown, at least to me.
But on to the main topic of this post, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s sixth studio album, which was released in 1965. The album continued his transition to “electric.” While Dylan had introduced electric instruments on his previous album Bringing It All Back Home, featuring an electric and an acoustic side, Highway 61 Revisited was all-electric, except for Desolation Row, the album’s last song.
Columbia Records didn’t understand and initially resisted the album’s title. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan discussed the deep connection he felt to Highway 61, which explains the title: “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began (a reference to his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota). I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down to the deep Delta country…It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”
Highway 61 Revisited features some of Dylan’s classic tunes, including the opener Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man and the title song. With a running time of more than 6 minutes, Like a Rolling Stone broke the mold of the then-typical 3-minute song. Initially, radio stations were reluctant to play such a long tune but relented when the song became popular. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts and also became an international hit.
A number of the album’s other songs – Tombstone Blues; It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry; From a Buick 6; and Highway 61 – are heavily blues-influenced tunes. Many of them have been covered by other formidable artists, especially the second song, including The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Taj Mahal and Toto.
While it’s fun to listen to the blues tunes, I think the album’s standout is Ballad of a Thin Man with its rather creepy music and lyrics. Based on comments Dylan has made over the years, the song expresses his disgust for certain reporters, who would ask him endless questions. In 1975, a journalist called Jeffrey Jones told Rolling Stone he attempted to interview Dylan at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival and claimed the song was about him. But Dylan refused to give him the credit, saying there were “many Mr. Joneses” at the time.
One my other favorite tunes on the album is Queen Jane Approximately. It’s a little reminiscent of Like a Rolling Stone, both in terms of the sound and the lyrics.
My thoughts about Highway 61 Revisited wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the excellent musicians who backed Dylan: Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Charlie McCoy (electric guitar), Paul Griffin (piano, organ), Al Kooper (piano, organ), Frank Owens (piano), Harvey Brooks (bass guitar), Russ Savakus (bass guitar), Joe Macho, Jr. (bass guitar), Bobby Gregg (drums) and Sam Lay (drums).
Some of these guys were or would be associated with other well-known artists. For example, Mike Bloomfield was a member of the Paul Butterfly Blues Band while Al Kooper was a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and the band’s initial leader. Paul Griffin also worked with Steely Dan, Don McLean, the Isley Brothers and Van Morrison, among others, and played on Blonde on Blonde, another iconic Dylan album.