Highway 61 is a real road that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans. Dylan said in his book Chronicles: "Highway 61 begins about where I came from, Duluth, to be exact." He added, "I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it, and could go anywhere from it."
Suggestion credit: Julian - Oakland, AR
Highway 61 runs from Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, all the way to New Orleans. It is notable for being a major transit point for southerners heading north to cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis.
From Dylan's childhood perspective, however, the road ran in a distinctly southward direction, down to the blues music that he so loved and that so heavily influenced him artistically.
The crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 is where Blues legend Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the devil to become a renown musician. Later Bob Dylan would "revisit" this highway which was the downfall of so many. You could call it Desolation Row because it would give you the Tombstone Blues singing the Ballad of a Thin Man whose destiny was to live Like a Rolling Stone.
In his 2004 60 Minutes interview, when Dylan was asked by he still performs, he suggested that he made a similar deal with the devil. There are all kinds of miscreants on the album, but they all share one thing in common: having sold out to something. "I'm Going down to the Crossroads, just to beg a ride" sang Johnson and later Clapton. Dylan just happened to revisit the place.
Al Kooper played piano and organ on this track. In his memoir, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Kooper says that after the release of the Highway 61 Revisited album, he was suddenly in demand for session work as an organ player. Strangers would call him up and offer him work constantly, even agreeing to pay him triple-scale. However, it turned out that all they were after was "the Dylan sound." The tip-off, he states, was that they would ask him to play the organ, even when he countered that he was far better on a guitar.
Al Kooper's memoir further tells a hilarious anecdote that happened on the road while Dylan and company were touring with this album. Apparently Bob Dylan was interrupted by a phone call in the middle of lunch, and tried getting the caller to try back later, but the caller was unmoved. So Dylan proceeded to cram his egg salad sandwich into the receiver of the phone, all the while explaining that it was lunchtime. He followed this by pouring milk into the phone, then thanked the caller for having lunch with them and hung up.
The Highway 61 Revisited album marks not only a milestone in Dylan's career, but a turbulent time for the culture surrounding him. Before releasing this album, Dylan played the notorious Newport Folk Festival, which is famous for all the wrong reasons (the crowd there was upset because Dylan was only going to play for 15 minutes), and afterwards was the Forest Hills concert, which is less-well known but had a much more turbulent crowd doing a lot more booing for reasons that weren't clear to anyone (they could have been hyped up by the anti-Dylan astroturf of the press). Then throw in the Northeast Blackout of 1965, the Vietnam War still ongoing, Lyndon B. Johnson stepping into office and proclaiming his "Great Society"... people were very stirred up.
The opening lyrics of this song were inspired by a biblical story from Genesis 22. As a test of faith, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, atop a mountain ("Highway 61" in Dylan's song). When Abraham reluctantly complies, God rewards him by refusing to accept the sacrifice and instead promises to bless him and all of his descendants.
The "Georgia Sam" mentioned in this song ("Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose. Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes") is almost certainly a reference to the great blues musician Blind Willie McTell, who also went by the names Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, and Pig'n' Whistle Red.
Mike from Berkeley, CaIn the fourth verse, incest and/or polygamy are alluded to. When the father says: "...let me tell the second mother this has been done", what does he mean by "this"? It seems to me to be a pregnancy. (Maybe that daughter is pale because of an illness like hemophilia or a drug dependency, but a simpler explanation is morning sickness.) But the father can't find the second mother, because she's run off either with her own son or her stepson. The punchline is a threefold scandal: a couple elopes, a husband is cuckolded, and a mother and (step?) son have a 'family affair'.
Robert from Snellville, GaMy take. Highway 61 represents the crossroads (49 and 61) where Robert Johnson is said to sell his soul to the Devil in return for his prowess on the guitar. So, the crossroads is where one makes the most critical decision in life... whether to follow Satan or to follow Jesus. All of the verses present these situations -- will you follow Jesus or Satan?
Fred from Laurel, MdAbraham's son was Isaac, and there's a Leonard Cohen song, "Story of Isaac," based on this biblical tale, as told by Isaac in the song. Judy Collins did a terrific job of it on her album, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" (1968). The song has 4 verses, but she left out the 2nd one, which goes, *** The trees they grew much smaller / the lake, a lady's mirror / we stopped to drink some wine // Then he threw the bottle over / it broke a minute later / and he put his hand on mine // And I thought I saw an eagle / but it might have been a vulture / I never could decide // Then my father built an altar / he looked once over his shoulder / he knew I would not hide. *** 2009 Jun 07
Ilia from Sydney,Can someone explain the third verse for me please, regarding the shoestring-and-telephones problem. The wiki article for this song says it is about "gang torture". I don't understand. Thanks.
Tom from Chester, United KingdomYes its track seven on "Highway 61 Revisited" strangely!
I think the album as a whole refers to the freedom that the Highway gave Dylan. It allowed him to move away from the town he was brought up in and allowed him to see an area of America rich in Blues music and culture.
Much of the album seems to focus on just making a racket being aggressive and showing a whole lot of attitude. Lyrically I need to look at it more but that's the overall impression that I get :)
Thomas from Somerville, AlI'm with you on this one, George. I remember an interview with Bob on an old radio show I used to play in the late 70's called Innerview. He was asked about this song in particular and he said something to effect of Hey, I don't know man, there was a lots of drugs going around in those days and a lots of lyrics were just about the dope, you know?..I remember that specifically because it was one of my favorite Dylan songs.
Ian from Paddock Lake, WiObviously the invoking of the biblical reference is a veiled reference to the pent-up anger he had over his father.
Martin from Chichester, United Kingdomi only know Bruce Springsteens version... which is rather good!
Henry from Baltimore, MdAlthough the album says police car, he really played a slide whistle. That's classic Dylan for ya!
Joshua from La Crosse, WiIronically the stretch of US Highway 61 north of Duluth doesn't exist anymore, at least as it was when Dylan wrote about it. It still carries the number 61, but is now a Minnesota state, rather than a US, highway. Nowadays US Highway 61 only goes as far north as Wyoming, MN (a town about 30 miles north of St. Paul), ending when it meets I-35 just outside of town.
Ryan from Mankato, MnBob Dylan wrote this song just north of Winona, Minnesota. Story goes He was hitchhiking north.
George from Holiday, FlWow, is everybody off the mark on this one! I'm old enough to have been a working musician in NYC during the '60s and it was common knowledge that this album was loaded with drug references, especially heroin. Here's a quick lesson in some underground terminology from that time: the "Highway" was a reference to "mainline" or hitting a good vein when "shooting up" with your "gun" or needle. The song begins by clearly pointing out that this is a risky deadly game but then goes on to say that it is also an easy means of escape from lifes' most bizarre problems. Further evidenced references are "Georgia Sam's bloody nose" and "Louie the King" as the drug dealer. If there is any judgement at all it is in the frivolous atmosphere of the music juxtaposed to the dark lyrics; picture Lemmings running toward the cliff. There are many more such references in the Highway 61 Revisited Album: Like a Rolling Stone, Tombstone Blues, Queen Jane,...the list goes on. Relisten to these songs and I think you will find that I am correct.
Lauren from WrexhamI agree with Richard and Daan. Dylan wrote a type of story in the album booklet and it says near the end, "the songs on this record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control?. the basic subject matter ? tho meaningless as it is ? has something to do with the beautiful strangers?. the beautiful strangers, Vivaldi?s green jacket & the holy slow train".
Ed from Lake Bluff, IlObvious reference to Old Testament and highway running from the Bob's home town in northern Minnesota to the Mississippi Delta- is it significant that Dylan's father was named Abraham?
Lester from New York City, NyAbe said "Where you want this killin' done?", and the Lord said "Down on Highway 61".
Cassi from Norman, OkI think Highway 61 refers to the Highway 61 that runs through Memphis to New Orleans. This highway is refered to as the "blues highway" and was also part of the crossroads where Robert Johnson famously sold his soul to the devil. Although, it does run through Duluth, I would bet my money that God wanted Abraham to kill his son down on the blues highway area of 61. I think the "Revisited" part of the song could be a reference to the great bluesmen of the past as well. This is not based on facts, but looking at Dylan's heavy influences, this is what I take from the song.
Daan from Tegelen, NetherlandsFurthermore, agreeing with Richard from Canada, I believe many songs by Dylan consist of simple word association. Yes indeed, I have the guts to pose the statement that Highway 61, but Tombstone Blues and even Subterranean Homesick Blues actually don't mean anything. This must be nuanced though, word association of course does come from subconscial links with a certain meaning.
Daan from Tegelen, NetherlandsHang on, Joe from San Diego there is nothing in Highway 61 about killing Jesus. What Dylan refers to is the biblical story about God requesting from Abraham that he sacrifices his only son. he did this to test Abraham's belief. First Abraham was (of course) reluctant, but eventually he gave in and went up the mountain God commanded him to do the sacrificing on. When Abraham was about to kill his son and set him on fire God spoke to him that he had given enough proof of his faith and could keep his son. So it's Abraham's son that is requested to be killed, not God's son. Dylan's affection towards religion is an obvious indicator for you to have thought of such yourself.
Richard from Ottawa, CanadaToo many Dylan fans look way too hard into the meaning and inspirational background from where he recieves his lyrics. He simply writes down names, events, and other pieces of information in which he has been influenced by or has encountered in his life time. furthermore, he injects all of these words into an organizational scheme, hence the solids lyrics, poetry and stories in which he uses in his songs. The complex words and rhymes, are just avaiable during the time he is smoking weed, in which he puts them into what we all call another masterpiece of dylan. However if you were ever to ask dylan about some of these things he writes about, he will tell you that it makes sense at the time and it is up to the listener to decide what the meaning truly is... Cheers
Joe from San Diego, CaI remember reading Chronicles, and reading Dylan mention Highway 61 around where he grew up as the launching point of something. The more he explains it in the book, the Highway takes on a negative connotation. By the time he finishes his explanation I remember Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and how the river through Congo and Dylan's perspective of Highway 61 compare to each other. The killing of Jesus, the next World War are also indicators that this Highway may be an avenue to some source of evil and darkness.
Joanie from Bowling Green, KyI used to live in Bob's old home town of Duluth and actually on Highway 61 (in the city limits it was London Road), and the funny thing was you seemed to constantly hear sirens on that road. I always thought that was why he had the siren sound in the song.
Emily from Philadelphia, PaThe inspiration behind HIghway 61 may come from a song by blues musician Fred Mcdowell called "61 Highway"; Dylan, like many musicians from that era, was influenced by blues.
Chad from Reading, PaThere is a portion of US 61 north of Duluth, MN (where Dylan was born) that borders Lake Superior. The road travels on high cliffs and executes sharp turns in places, and the worst part is the lack of a guardrail. Many people have died on that stretch over the years and I think this song may be about that stretch of highway. God tells Abraham to kill his son there, Howard seems like he may be telling Georgia Sam to kill himself, Louis the King tells Mack the finger to get rid of his stuff there, maybe the fifth daughter got a feeling that the second mother and seventh son were killed on that stretch of highway and that is what made her pale. But what do I know, that's just a thought on what the meaning of the song may be.
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScThe reason I love this song is because of the arrangement, and the fact that the lyrics don't seem to fit together. It's a fun song! Isn't there a song called "Highway 61." I think I've heard of it, but anyway, who recorded if there is such a song.
Micah from Mansfield, IlYes, there is a song called Highway 61 revisited. It contain's the famous dylan lyric about a conversation between Abraham and God. The goofy noise at the beginning of the song was produced by a siren whistle, which Dylan took from one of the studio musicians guitar cases. If I remember correctly he took it and put it in his harmonica rack.
Andy from Arlington, VaWhat is that weird instrument in the background making the goofy noise? Sounds like a New Year's party favor.
Fergal from Dublin, IrelandIs there a Dylan song called Highway 61 Revisited?