The open Highways and byways of the United States stretch far into the furthest regions of our minds, bodies, and souls. It’s amazing how these abandoned roads, sitting desolate, and begging to be treaded on one last time, harken us back for another round. The American story has been told by its many inhabitants, but the outsider from the inside has been one of the loudest voices. These outsiders, and in this case I’m speaking of the Jews, attempted to tread these very roads that the legendary blues men walked before. Their feet cracked, and caked with dust, walking down the line with a guitar slung over their shoulders. These stories have been told time and again, but the best Jewish interpretation of this comes from everyone’s favorite Jewish Troubadour. His highway, and all of our American made highway, was Highway 61 Revisited.
Highway 61 in the United States carries myths and legends, yet it is still a tangible landmark for all who want to relate to the spread of American music. In Dylan’s sordid memoir titled Chronicles, Volume 1 he writes that “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.” The highway had a very significant role in Dylan’s maturity and evolution as a musician in his early days growing up in Duluth. Highway 61 stretched through Duluth, and St. Paul all the way down to the Fabled Mississippi Delta where historians and ghosts claim the genesis of the Blues. Many notable historic blues men and women began their lives there, and many also saw their demise. Muddy Waters, Son House, Elvis Presley, and Charley Patton were all born near the fabled route. The amazing queen of the blues, Bessie Smith, died on the highway after sustaining serious injuries from an automobile accident. Let us also not forget that this is the route that existed on two planes of existence where Robert Johnson met and bargained with the devil. The story goes that he was given great talent as a blues musician, but the devil came to collect earlier than expected.
Highway 61 has also been the subject of various blues songs including Roosevelt Sykes’ “Highway 61 Blues” from 1932, and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “61 Highway” from 1964.
Bob Dylan grew amidst this mixture of love and hurt, myth and legend, grime and dirt spilling out of his soul and onto pieces of paper. His career has an interesting trajectory as a Jewish lad growing up in the mid-West and coming of age in the 1950’s. This was the time when Jews were becoming more accepted in the social landscape of the WASPish good old boys clubs. Jews began to thrive in various professions that were closed to them before, and amongst other things could live in non-Jewish neighborhoods. This meant that they assimilated into the quintessential Americanized model of life, cut from the same cloth as Uncle Sam, and rock solid like the Alamo. The parents were glad, but their kids were far from it. They were thrown into this new vast wasteland of a mundane sterile life. What better way to tap their sorrows and pain than through the blues.
The scholar Jon Stratton wrote on this in his magnificent work titled Jews, Race, and Popular Music. He notes that Jews played a large part in the Brill Building sound of short and sweet pop tunes for the teenagers. However, he argues that by the 1960’s Jewish men “expressed their disillusion by turning away from white popular music and towards African-American electric blues.” Many of these men formed and/or joined bands churning out an electrified monster of blues songs from days past, lost but not forgotten. Bands like The Electric Flag, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Blues Project, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Canned Heat played this type of music. All these band, and many more, all had Jewish members who galvanized the blues and attempted to feel the pain of days past.
Bob Dylan began with protest songs, growing out of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. However, he began to feel out of place. His inner core was tired of the usual sound of the man who stood for us. It was time to step out of his shadow and reform into a new entity of Jewish electric blues.
Bob Dylan solidified the change with his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Fest. Like the wonderful and very underrated pseudo-bizarro bio pic, I’m Not There, the audience was hit with a barrage of sonic bullets. He started his set with a few familiar acoustic songs, but he then changed equipment and brought out his full band. Interestingly, it seems like there are many stories with regards to the reactions from the audience. Some booed, some gazed in amazement, some jaws dropped, and certain folk heroes warned of chopping through the sound with an axe. Stratton’s interpretation is different as he explains that the crowd’s largest problem with the music was that it sounded too “black.”
The recording sessions for what would become the magnum opus that is Highway 61 Revisited were done before and after the Newport Folk Fest performance. In that span of time he managed to gather a bunch of accomplished African-American musicians, including the great producer Tom Wilson, along with some bluesy Jews. Al Kooper’s fresh face stepped in as he thought he could sit in and play guitar on a session or song. His hopes were quickly dashed as Mike Bloomfield ( of the group the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which played raw Chicago blues and consisted of blacks and Jews) opened up his salvo of slickness on the guitar.
Here’s a live performance with his group Electric Flag at the Monterey Festival:
You can hear his work through out the album as Dylan wails out the blues, and Mike belts out the riffs, screeching for attention with such precision. Kooper would end up playing organ on the legendary “Like a Rolling Stone.” Stratton explains that this song “was triggered by Dylan’s emotional reaction to Jewish disillusion with the promises of white American society coupled with the growing cultural awareness of what was coming to be known as the Holocaust.” Remember that before the 1960 trial of Adolph Eichmann few people, Jews and non-Jews across the globe, spoke openly about this dark death past.
Here’s a live rendition with the Band
There were other Jewish motifs and subtle topics strewn across the album. One fine example is the song that captured the title of the album, and the legendary highway I wrote about earlier. “Highway 61 Revisited” hits the floor runnig with an opening guitar riff and the sounds of an accompanying kazoo. It starts with a crossover of dimensions just like the tale of Robert Johnson’s experience on Highway 61. The tale intertwines the story of the binding of Isaac, from the first book of the Torah, with the contemporary view of the killing being done on highway 61. Also, it should be noted that in the Torah G-d tells Abraham to do the bid as a test of faith. However, Dylan turns Abraham into the confused and dumbfounded huckster who’s being taken for a ride. But G-d doesn’t let him off telling him that “if you see me you better run.” Abraham then asks “where do you want this killing done, G-d said down Highway 61!” Whoooommm. It definitely adds more of that rugged Dylan charm to the age old book that drives us and instructs us on life.