Robert Shelton, a Dylan biographer, said: "Highway 61 became I think to him a symbol of freedom, a symbol of movement, a symbol of independence and a chance to get away from a life he didn't want in that town." 1 Bessie Smith, the blues singer, died on Highway 61, while Elvis Presley grew up in housing projects along it and Martin Luther King, Jr was shot on Highway 61.
Perhaps most importantly, this is Bob Dylan's second album with electric songs on it, and many argue it is the first inkling that Dylan understood rock and was able to make it his own, as shown by "Tombstone Blues" and "Like a Rolling Stone".
In 1965, Bob Dylan had alienated a large portion of his fan base after switching to an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. He was accused of selling out his folk music for rock and roll, which was considered immature and low music in comparison. Dylan released a philosophically- and politically-aware, existential album, Highway 61 Revisited, to prove that rock could also be poetry, and could be intelligent and timely.
Dylan's next album, Blonde on Blonde, is usually considered his magnum opus; Highway 61 Revisited is similar, but is generally considered less mature and developed in comparison.
The music from this album is perhaps the most distinctively Bob Dylan. The jangling, fast-paced piano/organ/guitar music overlaid with Bob Dylan's rhyme-a-minute, nonsensical lyrics is the sound many casual fans identify as Dylanesque, though he actually varied the music quite a bit over his long career. The piano/organ/guitar combination was not original; it came from The Hawks, and before them, from black and white southern Protestant churches.
Lyrically, Dylan was unusual for his time in that his songs had deep political and symbolic meaning. Highway 61 Revisited is perhaps the best example of this. Each song is Dylan's vision of a corrupt society head towards chaos and distress. "Desolation Row", the epic final track, is an excellent example of Dylan's vision of the future for human society. The first verse introduces the vision:
Highway 61 Revisited was a major work in the development of rock and roll because it proved that rock could be lyrical poetry, and could be intelligent and perceptive and deliver a message. In contrast, few other records released before 1965 included any deep or extremely meaningful lyrics outside of the context of romance or teenaged life. Contrast this with Pet Sounds or the collected works of Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson or Elvis Presley, for example.
Several different versions of this album exist.
Highway 61 Revisited is one of the most important albums of Dylan's career. As the first album of electrified, cohesive rock-folk music, it has had an effect on countless musicians since then. Most immediately came other bands that combined rock with twanging folk (The Band - Music from Big Pink - 1968; Buffalo Springfield - Buffalo Springfield - 1967) and activist lyrics (Jim Croce - You Don't Mess Around with Jim - 1972, Phil Ochs - Pleasures of the Harbor - 1967), honky tonk and Bakersfield country (The Byrds - The Ballad of Easy Rider - 1969) and the electric blues (The Beatles - The White Album - 1968; The Rolling Stones - Aftermath - 1966). The intelligent and witty lyrics influenced the revolution in musical subject matter in the late 1960s, thereby affecting later musicians like politically aware funk, such as Funkadelic (One Nation Under a Groove - 1978) or Parliament (Motor Booty Affair - 1978), the revolutionary lyrics of punk music and proto-punk, such as The Clash (London Calling - 1979), David Bowie (Diamond Dogs - 1974) and Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True - 1977), and the grimy, urban tales of Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band (Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J - 1973) as well as the singer/songwriter genre of the early 1970s (Carole King - Tapestry - 1971; James Taylor - Sweet Baby James - 1970; Jackson Browne - Jackson Browne - 1972). The effects of the album can still be seen thirty years after its release in the aware lyrics of Nirvana (In Utero - 1993) and System of a Down (Toxicity - 2001).
Track Listing: (all songs written by Bob Dylan)
The song, "Highway 61 Revisited" off the album above, is an excellent example of Dylan's flippant, jangle-folk that ambles along, seemingly unable to keep up with itself.
Five seven-line verses, each of which end with the words "Highway 61" make up the song. Except for the first verse, the rhyme scheme is A/A/A/A/B/B/B; the first verse rhymes A/A/B/B/A/A/A.
The song was recorded August 2, 1965 with Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield (guitar) and Al Kooper (organ, police siren). It was also released as the B-Side of Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window. The song was first performed live on August 31, 1969 at the Isle of Wight festival, where was backed by The Band.
The first verse retells Genesis, Chapter 22. In Dylan's version, God tells Abe to sacrifice his son. Abe replies "Man, you must be puttin' me on." God threatens him and Abe agrees to make the sacrifice, asking where it should be done. God replies that the killing should be done out on Highway 61. Since this road begins in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born, many critics have argued that Abraham's son is Dylan himself, sacrificed by the stifling nature of modern society. Others have argued that this song's hostile God reflects Dylan agnosticism at the time of its creation (though he was born Jewish). It is also worth noting that Dylan's father was named Abraham.
In the later verses, characters like Georgia Sam, Howard, Mack the Finger and Louie the King make appearances. Their colorful and sordid adventures are told in nonsensical rhyming verses.
Some critics have also argued that Highway 61 is none other than the place outcasts and iconoclasts go when society rejects them. It could be said either to lead to or away from Desolation Row.