Highway 61 has a surprisingly long history in the music history. Not the album, the road. Highway 61 ran from New Orleans all the way up to the Canadian border. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil on this road. Bessie Smith died in an automobile accident on the highway. Son Thomas, among other blues artists, made an entire song about it. In a small town in Minnesota that runs along Highway 61, a little boy named Robert Zimmerman was born in 1941. With this highway and that boy, many stories are created and the highway also bears the title of one of the greatest albums ever created.
Highway 61 Revisited- The #4 album on the Rolling Stone Greatest Albums List
Highway 61 Revisited is one of the most earnest offerings from one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Bob Dylan saw himself rising in popularity, playing at the Newport Folk Festival and touring England. However, all of these concerts often put him in a depression, playing songs he hated and singing words he didn’t believe. The time came for him to sit down and write new, heart-felt songs. Highway 61 Revisited is the product of this writing, and includes some of Dylan’s finest work ever, if not the definitive Dylan album.
Bob Dylan gathered a good band of musicians to accompany him on this album as guitarists, pianists, organists, bassists, and drummers among other instruments. With this band, Dylan explored a new sound, most noticeably his signature organ-guitar blend so recognizable on Like A Rolling Stone. Unlike most folk music, Bob Dylan allows a lot of instrumental variety into his music and allowing for distorted guitar leads, catchy piano melodies, and emotion dripping harmonica solos. The songs range from bluesy, sultry ballads to 50s rock and roll to absolutely beautiful folk mastery. Dylan’s songwriting is masterful, each chord progression simple enough yet so incredibly original and recognizable that nothing sounds bland or uninteresting. A perfect blend of II V Is and I IV Vs make songs up to nearly 12 minutes never drag on and the songs pass by like a breeze although not a single song really fits the standard pop song length. However, fans around the world do not care about the song length, as Rolling Stone magazine called Like A Rolling Stone
the greatest song ever recorded and Desolation Row
remains a fan favorite in many hearts. The title track of the album appeared on the list as well, although in the 300s.
However, the music isn’t the only thing to marvel at on this album. Bob Dylan, ever since his induction into the music industry, has been looked upon as one of the greatest lyricists of all time, and for good reason. He makes classic literary allusions, conveys a message that is heart-felt and honest, and always maintains a rhyming pattern without sacrificing the meaning or story in any way. Whether the message refers to politics, love, or just general society, it doesn’t matter because Dylan explains all of them with unrivaled intelligence and flair. No matter how much the music conveys by itself, Dylan makes sure his lyrics and story are the main focus of every song. Ballad of a Thin Man
makes “Mr. Jones” as relevant a term for the common man as John Doe or John Smith. Desolation Row
features the most classical allusions one has ever seen, making references to his idols while still maintaining a message and relevant flow, something Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wishes he could do. His most allusion-filled verse occurs later in the 11 minute epic, saying:
Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
'Which Side Are You On"'
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
The rhyme pattern works with an ABCB pattern and repeating it 4 times. The entire 11 minute song, comprised of 10 verses, never breaks this form and shows an absolute mastery of the English language. However, Desolation Row
has more to offer than just fantastic lyrics. Desolation Row is some of the best music Dylan ever produced, featuring just two guitars. However, the two guitars make an Opeth acoustic section look like a typical contemporary Christian song. The lead guitar, although Dylan always remaining the focus, pretty much solos over the chord progression, mixed perfectly with Dylan’s voice and never overtaking Dylan in volume. Only Bob Dylan and friends can make a short, simple chord progression span nearly 12 minutes and never allow the song to get the least bit boring.
However, Like a Rolling Stone
is often described as the best song ever, not Desolation Row. Like a Rolling Stone
is definitely deserving of the title. The chord progression ascends up in an absolute perfect way, showcasing Dylan’s mastery of chord progressions. Never does Dylan refer to a weak link between chords or an imperfect cadence. With the aesthetically pleasing chord progression in place, the mix of guitar, bass, harmonica, and organ make a catchy blend of fantastic, bluesy music. The organ, most noticeably in the chorus, is by far the catchiest part of the music, playing a fantastic counterpart to Dylan’s voice. While the rest of the band grooves on this, Dylan crafts catchy vocal hooks with his longing question of “How does it feel"” His rhyme patterns, again, are perfect all the way throughout. Despite the song revolving around two main progressions, the song goes over 6 minutes, once again never tiring. The Beatles song Help! was the only song that eclipsed Dylan’s song on the charts, mainly because Beatlemania already began its infestation on American society.
In between the brilliant album opener and closer, Dylan makes some undeniably great songs in Ballad of a Thin Man
and Tombstone Blues
. Ranging from just as they say, a ballad to a blues, Dylan shows his many different voices well. Each song on this album is enjoyable to listen to, although some definitely stand out among others. However, there is no doubt that this album is a classic, and certainly one of the best from one of the greatest artists, in every sense of the word, of all time.
Like a Rolling Stone
Ballad of a Thin Man