Highway 61 Revisited is Bob Dylan's sixth studio album, released in 1965 by Columbia Records. It is Dylan's first album to be recorded entirely with a full rock band, after he experimented with the approach on half of Bringing It All Back Home. It is commonly tagged as documenting the "angry young man" period in Dylan's career, in-between the playfulness of its surrounding albums; many of the songs on Highway 61 are of an accusatory nature and feature rough, loud takes.
Featuring hits and concert staples such as "Like a Rolling Stone", "Desolation Row", and "Ballad of a Thin Man", it is also generally considered to be among the artist's best and most influential efforts. Dylan himself commented, "I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to."
The album peaked at #3 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart and #4 in the UK, while "Like a Rolling Stone" reached #2 on the US Pop Singles chart and #4 in the UK, also receiving the accolade of being placed #1 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The album itself was ranked #4 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
"A lot of great basic American culture came right up that highway and up that river", Robert Shelton told a BBC interviewer. "And as a teenager Dylan had travelled that way on radio. ... 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 Hibbing."
While "Like a Rolling Stone" was completed in mid-June of 1965, the rest of the album was recorded with a different producer, Bob Johnston, in four days of sessions shortly after Dylan's legendary appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the sessions also produced Dylan's next single, "Positively 4th Street", not included on the LP.
The second set involved Dylan playing alongside an electric blues band, which met with a mix of cheering and booing from the audience. Dylan left the stage after only three songs. The boos are commonly believed to have come from outraged folk fans whom Dylan had alienated with his electric guitar. An alternative account claims audience members were merely upset by poor sound quality and a surprisingly short set. However, Dylan soon reemerged and sang two much better-received solo acoustic numbers, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Mr. Tambourine Man", although his choice of the former has been described as a carefully selected death knell for the kind of consciously sociopolitical, purely acoustic music that the cat-callers were demanding of him, with "New Folk" in the role of "Baby Blue".
Whatever sparked the crowd's disfavor at Newport, Dylan's new style provoked strong debate amongst the folk music establishment. According to rock journalist Andy Gill, "the old folkies ... were still too busy singing 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' to realize just how much the times had actually changed".
The original twenty-page manuscript has been described by biographer Clinton Heylin as "an ill-formed mass of words whose direction was uncertain." As it was rewritten down to ten pages, "it wasn't called anything," recalled Dylan, "just a rhythm thing on paper, all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest."
When Dylan felt it was ready to record, he and Tom Wilson assembled a band. On lead guitar, Dylan recruited an old acquaintance, Michael Bloomfield, who had met Dylan on a few occasions including jamming with him in Chicago in April 1963. By 1965, he was the lead guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a critically-acclaimed, American blues-rock band. Dylan contacted Bloomfield and invited him to his retreat in Woodstock, New York. "I didn't even have a guitar case," recalled Bloomfield, "I just had my Telecaster. And Bob picked me up at the bus station and took me to this house where he lived ... he taught me these songs, 'Like A Rolling Stone,' and all those songs from Highway 61 Revisited, and he said, 'I don't want you to play any B. B. King-type leads, none of that standard blues, I want you to play something else.' So we fooled around and [I] finally played something he liked ... he was playing in weird keys which he always does, all on the black keys of the piano."
Days later, on June 15 1965, Dylan held a recording session at Columbia's Studio A in New York. In addition to Bloomfield, Dylan and Wilson recruited pianist Frank Owens, bassist Russ Savakus, and drummer Bobby Gregg. Also present was Al Kooper, a young musician invited by Wilson to observe, but who wanted to play guitar on the session. With Bloomfield present, Kooper remained a mere observer.
Dylan and his band recorded three songs: a new composition titled "Phantom Engineer" (later rerecorded and released as "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"), a song held over from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions titled "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence," and "Like a Rolling Stone." A number of unsuccessful attempts were made at "Phantom Engineer" and "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence" before Dylan turned his attention to "Like a Rolling Stone."
After several false starts, Dylan decided to use both a piano and an organ on "Like a Rolling Stone." Kooper volunteered to play organ, and even though Wilson made it very clear that he was aware of Kooper's inexperience with the instrument, he allowed him to play it. In Kooper's widely-quoted words, he was feeling his "way through the [chord] changes like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch." Kooper was so uncertain he purposely played behind the beat in order to hear the chord changes first. After recording one complete take, they "all adjourned to the booth to hear it played back," recalled Kooper. Halfway through the take, Dylan asked Wilson to push the organ up in the mix. With a little reluctance, Wilson accommodated Dylan; Dylan liked what he heard and now had the blueprint for the famous organ-guitar sound that would define the recordings of this era.
Everything recorded on June 15 was ultimately rejected, but it set the stage for the remaining sessions. Dylan and his band returned to Studio A the following day. Virtually the entire session was devoted to "Like a Rolling Stone," with Kooper once again playing organ. The fourth take was ultimately selected as the master, but Dylan and the band would record eleven more takes before listening to the recorded results in the studio booth.
Though recorded for a single, Dylan ultimately decided to include it on his next album. With a shortage of new material, Dylan spent a month in his new home in Byrdcliffe, upstate New York writing new songs.
Four days after the Newport Folk Festival, on July 29 1965, Dylan returned to Studio A and resumed work on his next album. He was backed by the same band from the previous studio session (pianist Paul Griffin was also recruited for the remainder of the sessions), but for unknown reasons, Tom Wilson did not return. Instead, he was replaced by Columbia producer Bob Johnston, who had lobbied to work with Dylan (he was not involved in Wilson's dismissal). When Johnston arrived, he picked a new staff engineer, Mike Figlio, who had also recorded Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and who would follow Johnston down to Columbia Nashville a few years later.
Their first session together was devoted to three songs. After experimenting with different keys and tempos, master takes of "Tombstone Blues," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh," and "Positively 4th Street" were successfully recorded. "Tombstone Blues" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh" were included in the final album, but "Positively 4th Street" was issued as a single-only release.
The following day, Dylan and his band returned to Studio A and recorded three songs. A master take of "From a Buick 6" was successfully recorded and later included on the final album, but most of the session was devoted to "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" Dylan was not satisfied with the results, and set the song aside for a later date; it would eventually be re-recorded months later. An 'alternate' take from this session, featuring a glockenspiel, was accidentally released on a mis-pressed single, bearing the title "Positively 4th Street." In addition, an alternate take of "From a Buick 6" with a harmonica intro was accidentally released on some early stereo pressings of the album, and was replaced with the master take on subsequent releases.
During the next two days, Dylan spent much time writing out chord charts for the remaining six songs he had yet to record, with Harvey Brooks replacing bass player Russ Savakus. Sessions resumed at Studio A on Monday, August 2 1965, this time with Sam Lay sitting in on drums. "Highway 61 Revisited," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Queen Jane Approximately," and "Ballad of a Thin Man" were all recorded successfully and master takes were selected for the album.
One final session was held on August 4 1965, again at Studio A. Most of the session was devoted to completing "Desolation Row," various versions and arrangements of which had been previously been tried and rejected. It was finally recorded with just two acoustic guitars. According to Johnston and Kooper, guitarist Charlie McCoy was flown in from Nashville, Tennessee to accompany Dylan on the song. Seven takes were recorded, with numbers six and seven being spliced together to create the master recording included on the final album. One take of "Tombstone Blues" was also recorded, but it did not replace the master take selected from an earlier session.
When the single was released, Paul McCartney recalls hearing it at John Lennon's house: "It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful ... He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further." A very young Bruce Springsteen would hear the recording on WMCA while driving in a car with his mother: "That snare shot that [kicked it off] sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." Frank Zappa later recalled, "When I heard 'Like A Rolling Stone,' I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else.' ... It sold, but nobody responded to it the way that they should have."
Robert Christgau described it as "the poor boy's put-down" while Clinton Heylin calls it "a truly vengeful song — on a level of misogyny even the Stones had yet to scale..." Salon.com critic Bill Wyman wrote that "Like a Rolling Stone" "portrays an entire youth generation as a slumming sorority girl — and that's just the first verse. Then he gets nasty: The rest of the song is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of one of those scenes in The Sopranos in which a mobster systematically kicks the bejesus out of someone who's already down. Is 'Like a Rolling Stone' the most powerful, difficult, unexpected and unrelenting performance in rock? Got another candidate?"
Some people claim that "Like a Rolling Stone" is a song about Edie Sedgwick, who was also linked to Andy Warhol (Dylan had written and recorded the song before meeting Sedgwick). Dylan was in conflict with Warhol, as he accused him of letting Sedgwick become addicted to heroin. This may suggest that "Napoleon in rags" refers to Warhol. In addition, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones apparently thought that it was about him. Dylan, perhaps playing on Jones's paranoia, purportedly confirmed this to an audience at Carnegie Hall later in 1965.
Notwithstanding the arguments that "Mr. Jones" is based on no specific person but is instead a composite of many archetypical squares that Dylan had had unfortunate experiences with, several individuals have been named as possible inspirations for the character. Most evidence points to Jeffrey Jones, a reporter for The Village Voice, who attempted to interview Dylan at the 1965 Newport festival. In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, Jones himself related that, after embarrassing himself before Dylan and his entourage with foolish questions, Dylan lit into him in a hotel dining room, mockingly asking him "Mr. Jones! Gettin' it all down, Mr. Jones?" Dylan appears also to have partly acknowledged the event when he introduced "Ballad of a Thin Man" at a 1978 concert with the admission: "I wrote this for a reporter who was working for the Village Voice in 1963.
"Queen Jane Approximately" refers to Lady Jane Grey, the uncrowned Queen of England for nine days in July 1553 .
Highway 61 is the main highway running along the length of the Mississippi River, from northern Minnesota along the North Shore of Lake Superior in the region is known as "The Iron Range" or "The North Country," where Dylan grew up, to New Orleans. Classic New Orleans Blues ballads were frequently written about Highway 61, but Dylan believed a different kind of folk/blues could be written from the northern end, where the river begins.
Dylan biographer Cloin Irwin claims that the inspiration of Desolation Row came from the lynching of several black circus workers in Dylan's home town of Duluth, Minnesota. After a young girl claimed that she had been raped by members of a travelling circus, seven black middle-aged men were taken into police custody. Hours later, a lynch mob attacked the county jail. The mob dragged the alleged-culprits to the middle of a nearby street, where they proceeded to lynch members of the accused. Three of the accused were saved from death, however, they were all later put to death or to jail - and none of them were ever convicted of rape or murder. Dylan's father, Abraham Zimmerman, was a young man when this event occurred - perhaps giving a young Bob a rich history on the incident. Desolation Row's reference to racial tensions in middle America are most likely drawn from the lynching - especially the eerie lyrics alluding to a circus being in town. The reference to the Duluth lynchings, however, is one that's been under much debate.
"Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" was later re-recorded in November with a different band, the Hawks (later known as The Band). An outtake recorded during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions was accidentally released on a single; it was soon withdrawn and replaced with the later master take recorded in November.
"Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence," a track left over from the Bringing It All Back Home album, was revisited with several takes devoted to recording a satisfactory studio version of the song. Ultimately it was left off of the record (the second time this happened to the song). The master take recording during the Highway 61 sessions eventually saw release on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
Another outtake recorded at the sessions was "Lunatic Princess Revisited (Why Should You Have to Be so Frantic?)".
The following alternate recordings from the Highway 61 sessions were released on The Bootleg Series Volume 7:
Clinton Heylin wrote it was "an album that consolidated everything 'Like A Rolling Stone' (and Bringing It All Back Home) proffered ... an amalgamation of every strand in American popular music from 'Gypsy Davey' to the Philly Sound. Tim Riley said it was "the first Dylan record to posit protest as a way of life, a state of mind, something as psychologically bound as it is socially incumbent.
A profound influence on Dylan's contemporaries, it also coincided with greater commercial success as singles like "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street" brought him to a wider audience. The controversy that ignited with Newport would continue to follow Dylan throughout 1965, but he had no intention of turning back.