“61” at 51: How Bob Dylan Changed Pop Music On Highway 61 Revisted

Featured image via mtarvainen

1965 was quite a year for Bob Dylan. Before the year began, he was a bona fide folk hero and was labeled “the voice of a generation”. He made fans out of his heroes like Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger, and was considered a key figure for the civil rights movement. In 1965 however, things changed. Bob began recording a record called Bringing It All Back Home, a record that featured electric guitars and a band on half the songs. This came as a shock to his fans, only to be fully realized at the Newport Folk Festival when he showed his new electric style to the world. He was labeled as “Judas” and a “traitor”, and Pete Seeger even tried to cut the microphone cables while he was performing. No one in pop culture had seen that violent of a reaction before, and this was only the beginning for the 24 year old singer. Luckily for him, he had recently recorded a song called “Like a Rolling Stone” that would make him a superstar, and shatter the idea of what pop music was to the average person.

During that summer, Bob would go into the studio and record tracks for what would become Highway 61 Revisited. This time, Bob wanted a full electric album. He was tired of other groups reaping success from his songs. This time he wanted his own version of his songs to hit the charts. With the help of Keyboardist Al Kooper and hotshot guitarist Mike Bloomfield from the Butterfield Blues Band, Bob brought his high energy blues-meets-poetry rock to the masses.

The sessions began with jamming out the songs. The band consisted of Bobby Gregg on drums, Paul Griffin on Piano, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass, and Frank Owens on rhythm guitar. The first session was dedicated to “Like a Rolling Stone” which they managed to get a good take of. What made this track different from other songs at the time was its lyrical content and its length. Radios were usually not used to playing six minute songs, but they had to for this song. And while most artists in the pop world were singing about love and feeling “groovy”, Dylan sings of a rich girl who has “no direction home” and who’s “living out on the street”. It’s a dark tale for a song that eventually went number one on the charts, but it certainly got Dylan’s point across. “Like a Rolling Stone” showed the times were changing, and that pop music was becoming more thoughtful and artistic.

 “Rolling Stone” was not the only great contribution from Highway 61. “Tombstone Blues” is a sweltering, punishing blues track, and “Desolation Row”, though it is 11 minutes long, has been cited as a very influential track. “Queen Jane Approximately” is in the same vein as “Rolling Stone” but is more tender and coming from a more sympathetic angle. “Highway 61” is quite a strange track enhanced with whistles and utterly crazy lyrics, and “Ballad of a Thin Man” is the darkest track on the record that speaks of a guilty man. The album was done almost entirely live with a band that Dylan handpicked himself. The album is loose, loud and powerful. This new sound showed Dylan’s love for the energy of Rock n’ Roll, his love for the blues, the storytelling aspects of country, and his own brand of modern beatnik poetry.

What Dylan accomplished on Highway 61 can be felt today. He created folk rock. He inspired countless artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to think outside the box. He inspired non-conventional, even spiteful lyrics that can be heard in Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed’s work. He did whatever he was inspired to do. That attitude can be seen in punk rock, hip hop and anything that labels itself as “rebellious” kind of music. Dylan might have been labeled as “Judas”, but Highway 61 certainly made an impact for years to come.

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