Bob Dylan

Highway 61 Revisited

Composed by Bob Dylan

Song Review by

"Highway 61 Revisited," the title song from Bob Dylan's sixth album, is typical of the rollicking style of his early folk-rock efforts and of the free association that made his lyrics the subject of widespread speculation, even when they essentially amounted to comic novelties. Set to a fast shuffle, the song contains five seven-line verses with no separate chorus, though each verse ends with the words "Highway 61." (The word "revisited" does not appear.) In all but the first verse, the first four and the last three lines rhyme (A/A/A/A/B/B/B), but it is that first verse which is the most interesting. It is a retelling of the 22nd chapter of Genesis, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Dylan's version (with a rhyme scheme of A/A/B/B/A/A/A), Abraham, called Abe, speaks in '60s slang, saying, "Man, you must be puttin' me on." After God threatens him, however, he just asks where the killing should be done. "Out on Highway 61," God replies. Dylan commentators have pointed out that Highway 61 runs south from Duluth, MN, where Dylan grew up, and that his father's name was Abe. Thus, Dylan himself becomes the son to be killed, according to some interpreters. The rest of the lyrics support no particular reading, however; they contain a fanciful string of incidents featuring colorfully named characters -- Georgia Sam, poor Howard, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, etc. The names sound like they could be gangsters or blues singers, and the situations suggest stream-of-conscious writing, alternately absurd and allusive. The closest thing to a real-world commentary comes in the final verse, when a promoter is asked by "the rovin' gambler" to help stage a next world war and replies that, while he's never tried that before, he thinks it can be done very easily by setting up some bleachers out on Highway 61. Had Dylan been encountering inexperienced promoters who tried to organize his shows in such a slapdash fashion? "Highway 61 Revisited" was recorded on August 2, 1965, with Dylan accompanied by a six-piece rock band including guitarist Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, who played both organ and the police siren heard throughout the song. It was released a scant four weeks later on the album named for it. Three months after that, it was issued as the B-side of the single "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window." Dylan is not known to have performed "Highway 61 Revisited" in a concert until August 31, 1969, when he played it backed by the Band at the Isle of Wight festival. Later that year, Terry Reid put the song on his self-titled album, and Johnny Winter gave it its most prominent cover version by including it on his Second Winter LP, where it served as a showcase for his guitar playing. (Winter released another version on his 1976 Captured Live album.) Dylan performed "Highway 61 Revisited" frequently on his 1974 comeback tour with the Band and put a live version on the resulting concert album, Before the Flood. He returned to the song for his 1984 European tour, and a third version turned up on Real Live at the end of that year. From the late '80s on, it became a staple of his Never-Ending Tour. On October 16, 1992, at the Dylan tribute concert held at Madison Square Garden, it was appropriately given to Johnny Winter to perform. PJ Harvey cut a modern cover on the 1993 album Rid of Me.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Highway 61 Revisited 1965 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 3:30
Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan Tribute 2002 Big Eye Music 3:40
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