Sunday, October 9, 2016

Highway 61 Revisited -- A Few Notes About the Song and the Show

Last night's KUMD radio show Highway 61 Revisited was devoted to testimonies about the show and what it has meant to so many listeners over the course of 25 years. Host John Bushey brought various guests and friends into the studio to share stories and pick a favorite song for him to play. You could tell by everyone's comments during the hour that John is much loved and appreciated.

In 2014 I had a chance to interview John and learned about a few of his other passions beyond Dylan, though in reality they're all quite inter-related. It's a good read worth revisiting.

In thinking about this radio program it dawned on me that I've never written anything about the song itself, and thought it worthy of some attention as we head toward next Saturday's 25th anniversary celebration of the show.

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John Bushey's weekly Dylan hour, of course, took its name from the ground-breaking album of the same name, just as Rolling Stone magazine pilfered its name from the Dylan song. The song is so surreal that even long-time listeners might fail to get its significance without a few clues.

First Clue: Highway 61 is a real place. 
If you grow up in some other part of the world, Highway 61 probably has little real meaning or connection to this part of the world. Many of Dylan's songs, however, have literal geographic references (e.g. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Tonight.) That Highway 61 is in Northern Minnesota would only seem significant as a marker on a map that gets included in a song by a Minnesota songwriter. But the highway is much more than this, as will soon be noted.

My first trip to Mexico took place at Christmastime 1977. It surprised me -- but made a noticeable impact -- to learn that Highway 35 that runs through Duluth is the only road you need to know, a direct route to the Border. Roads are like ribbons that connect places.

So it is that Highway 61 is also an Ariadne's thread that helps pull one through the labyrinthine lyrics of this song or, literally, across the midsection of the country from North to South.

Second Clue: The Crossroads
Highway 35 takes you south to the border. Highway 61 carries you south to the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues. In fact, it's nicknamed the Blues Highway as it runs through Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. At one end of Highway 61 you find the Iron Range and the North Country. At the other end you find the roots of American blues music.

Along the way, there in the Deep South, you find the crossroads where Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play the blues, at the intersection where 61 crosses Route 49. (See Oh Brother Where Art Thou.) This story of Robert Johnson has achieved legendary stature in the music world. (Read more about Robert Johnson and Crossroads here.)

Third Clue: Abraham
John Bushey @ Cheapo Discs, Minneapolis*
It's such a strange opening line. God said to Abraham, 'Kill me me a son....'  This was written while the Supremes were signing "Stop in the name of love" and Herman's Hermits were singing "Can't you hear my heartbeat." The Beatles were making "Help" and the Beach Boys were singing "Help Me Rhonda."

Historically, knowing the stories of the Bible was an aspect of cultural literacy. I'm not sure how well known these stories are any more. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, you can find the seminal tale of how a man named Abram was called by God to leave his father's home to go live in another land. Beginning in chapter 12 we see a series of incidents in which Abram becomes Abraham, the historical Patriarch of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It is a series of stories about the development of his faith, and the covenant God made with him. The specific story referenced in this song takes place in Genesis 22.

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For more about this song, you can check out Tony Atwood's dissection here at his Untold Dylan blog, which begins with Atwood noting that Dylan's father was also named Abraham.

Dylan has performed this song live nearly 1800 times over the past 50 years, including Friday night at Desert Trip. One of my favorite versions is the opening track on his Real Live album, performed during his 1984 European Tour.

Highway 61 Revisited 

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red, white and blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light, he says hmm you’re right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored
He was tryin’ to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61
Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

* * * *
The celebration next weekend is at The Rex inside the Fitger's Complex in Duluth. The event will feature live music by Cowboy Angel Blue and The Boomchucks (a.k.a. The Freewheelers) plus (rumor has it) an assortment of special guests. I'm expecting surprises. Magic Marc Percansky will be on hand as Master of Ceremonies, so you can count on this being a very special evening. 

There will also be quite a few items generously donated for a silent auction to defray costs and provide seed money for next year's Duluth Dylan Fest. (Here's a link to a few of these items.)

See you at the show.

*The album in John's hands is Bringing It All Back Home, signed and submitted to the show for this event. The mural on the wall at Cheapo Discs (a.k.a. Cheapo Records) features Highway 61 Revisited.

1 comment:

LEWagner said...

I took Sandy, Bobby and Richard up hwy 61 in 1988. We were in the 1968 Dart. We'd come from Dallas (from picking up Sandy and Bobby at Ket's). We went onto #61 in Mississippi, not in New Orleans, though, as I'd wanted to tour the Vicksburg battlefield, and Oxford (Faulkner's home).
Nobody we talked to in Oxford, including at the Ole Miss campus could (or would) tell us where Faulkner's home was, though, so we never got there, but headed north through Memphis. Did we go all the way to St. Louis that same day? I think we did, come to think of it.
My hope was to see Hannibal, MO, too, and Springfield, IL, but Richard got sick in St. Louis, so we headed west to I-35 and came up the rest of the way on the freeway. It was farther, but I figured it would be quicker.
Richard and I were gone from Twig exactly 1 week, almost to the hour, and figured my average speed had been 30 mph, over that week, so unfortunately we weren't able to see the country along the highway in as much detail as you describe. It was interesting, though, to see a little how the deep South had changed since the last time I'd been there, in 1967.