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Morning Song – Highway 61 Revisited

November 19, 2015

Best rock and roll use of a slide whistle, ever.

And that’s just the first 3 seconds of the title track to Bob Dylan’s turn-everything-upside-down first rock and roll album, Highway 61 Revisited.  The rest of the song—and the album—doesn’t disappoint.  Bewilder? Suprise? Shock? Confuse?  Yes.  But not disappoint.

Highway 61 starts in New Orleans, the city that is the beating heart of American music.  It meanders north along the Mississippi River to St. Louis (Chuck Berry’s hometown) and Memphis (where W. C. Handy made his name as “Father of the Blues”).  Highway 61 is where Bessie Smith was killed in a car accident and Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul (at the crossroads of Highway 49 in Clarksdale). It’s the road that countless African-Americans traveled during the Great Migration to get to Chicago and escape Jim Crow (only to find Chicago’s own version of Jim Crow brutally alive and well).

It also cut through Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota on its way to Canada.  “Highway 61 Revisited” is a jumbled-up blues boogie ramble through what music critic Greil Marcus calls “old, weird America”, very much including Dylan’s own life.  (It changes the song to know that his father’s name was Abraham.)

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