Rewind: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

[For a Dylan freak like me, it doesn’t get much better than finding an opportunity to write about the man himself, and the 50th anniversary of one of his most defining albums seemed like a valid excuse. The frustration with writing about someone like Bob Dylan is that it’s nearly impossible to 1) say something that hasn’t already been said, and 2) not sound (or at least feel) mildly pretentious. That said, I think I did a solid job of giving this classic LP its due.]

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With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here, we look back at Bob Dylan’s momentous sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, which turns 50 years old on August 30.

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What is Highway 61 Revisited?

Released by Columbia Records on August 30, 1965.Highway 61 Revisited is Bob Dylan’s sixth studio album. Well regarded as one of Dylan’s most quintessential albums, it comes at the powerful peak of his first period of productivity.

The album’s title refers to the U.S. highway route that connects his native Duluth, Minnesota to New Orleans.  In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan described his symbolic relationship with the route:

“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.”

What does it sound like?

Following its sonically transitional predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61marks Bob Dylan’s full transformation from a Woody Guthrie-inspired folk musician and protest singer to a electrified rock and roll poet and bandleader. The album manages to incorporate rocking blues-based rhythms and melodies while retaining sharpness and nuance of his unequalled songwriting.

The track list is packed with Dylan essentials – including “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and 11-minute closer “Desolation Row.” Most notably, the album kicks off with Dylan’s most timeless and singular song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Rolling Stone places at number one on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Infamously known as “The Day Dylan Went Electric,” the song was controversially debuted at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, days after it was released as a single, marking the first time Dylan appeared live playing with an electric guitar and full backing band. Many members of the folk-loyal crowd booed the show, accusing Dylan of being a traitor and commercial sell-out, while backstage Pete Seeger allegedly threatened to cut the power cord with an axe.

Time would soon prove that Dylan was, as usual, merely ahead of the curve, and the song was soon revered for its powerful, idiosyncratic sound and its dense, elaborate lyrics that encapsulate the zeitgeist of the ’60s generation.

Why should I care?

Highway 61 Revisited is a keystone of the American canon, written and recorded at the height of Bob Dylan’s own creative prowess. Though Dylan veered away from the protect songs that made him a spokesperson for civil rights and anti-war movements of the day, the songs captured the chaos and creativity of America during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.

By this point Boy Dylan was already a folk and pop star, labeled as the “spokesperson of his generation.” ButHighway 61 Revisited, and ”Like a Rolling Stone” in particular, marked Dylan’s ultimate arrival as an icon, a leader, a god on earth.

For those who didn’t live through the rich and rapid, it’s easy to forget how ahead Dylan was in relation to his contemporaries. When Highway 61 was released in summer 1965, the Beatles had yet to record Rubber Soul, let alone Sgt. Peppers, the Beach Boys had yet to make Pet Sounds. The Stones were still mostly doing cover songs of blues standards, and The Doors and Led Zeppelin were years from even being born. The profound influence of the album and Dylan’s greater repertoire are impossible to understate.

Highway 61 Revisited was to music what the moon landing was to science – and Dylan beat that by several years too.

Where do I hear more?

With 36 studio albums to date, not even mentioning live albums, the Bootleg Series and various side projects, even the serious Dylan fan sits somewhat awestruck in approaching his overwhelming discography.

Many would simplify the highest points of his storied career into three periods. The first could easily include all nine of the albums he released between 1962 and 1969. The second must include his mid-’70s records Blood on the Tracks (1975), The Basement Tapes (w/ The Band, 1975), and Desire (1976).

His most recent renaissance revolves around the hat trick of Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) andModern Times (2006). Even when Bob isn’t at his best, there’s plenty of genius to be found throughout his half-century run. For any newcomer that’s serious about digging into the depths of Dylan, the most logical approach is to simply start from the beginning.

Outside of the music, there’s no shortage of scholarly and popular literature on the grand history and influence Bob Dylan. During the same period of recording Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan also wrote the experimental prose poetry book, Tarantula, which resembles the stream-of-consciousness, free-form style that also characterized his lyrics at the time.

His aforementioned memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, is a fascinating, eccentric and occasionally obfuscating telling of various periods of his life. He plans to publish two follow-ups to complete a trilogy, though there has been little recent indication on when the next volume will arrive.

In film, Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005) and Murray Lerner’s Other Side of the Mirror are both excellent documentaries focused on the first period of Dylan’s career. The latter, which chronologically gathers footage from his three successive years performing at the Newport Folk Festival (1963, 1964, 1965), is a fascinating document for showcasing Dylan’s rapid development as an artist in a two-year window and his sharp rise to fame, culminating in the infamous electrified performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

At age 74, Bob Dylan remains remarkably spry. Since 1988, he has been ceaselessly touring on what has been dubbed the Never Ending Tour, adding up to well over 2,500 shows to date.



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