Highway 61


The real Highway 61 starts in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and runs down to New Orleans. This highway was one of the main routes that many blues and jazz musicians traveled from the south to the north in the early 20th century in search of factory jobs in the big cities. As they made their pilgrimage, these musicians spread their style of music all across the country. Eventually, the rural folk blues of the south was transformed into the modern electric style in the northern big cities, Chicago in particular. For those interested in learning more about Highway 61, get William McKeen’s book Highway 61: A Father and Son Journey Through Middle America, an enjoyable read written by a hard-core Dylan fan.

The lyrics of Highway 61 border on the nonsensical, jumping wildly from one weird scene full of strange characters to another with little connectivity. I once read a book that explained the world of subatomic particles, which behave in a manner so contrary to anything else found in nature that the author advised that laymen not even attempt to understand it. The same is kinda true of this song: don’t even try to follow it like a normal song because it simply doesn’t work that way. The highway references at the end of each version and the vaguely sinister tone are the only things that hold the song together.

Automobiles and highways are symbols of freedom and escape in most rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Examples are the Beach Boys’ Fun, Fun, Fun (‘til her daddy takes the T-bird away”) and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. They are also, not surprisingly, used for the same purpose in many novels. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a prime example.

In this song, however, there’s definitely something not so great about what’s happening on this road. It’s a place the desperate go: Georgia Sam, who has a bloody nose and not enough clothes, runs there to hide. Mack the Finger goes there to sell junky goods – telephones that won’t ring – to the unsuspecting. A couple of cynical promoters – perhaps a symbol of the government – plan to start a war and stage it right in the middle of America, on Highway 61.

The first verse is perhaps the funniest and certainly the most sacrilegious of all Dylan songs. In this verse, Dylan takes one of the most famous stories of the Bible – the story of God testing Abraham’s faith by ordering him to kill his only son – and retells it using modern, hipster language. Here is the passage from Genesis 22.

 1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" 
   "Here I am," he replied. 
 2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love,
   and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice
   him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell
   you about." 
 3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He
   took with him two of his servants
   and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt
   offering, he set out for the place
   God had told him about. 
4 On the third day Abraham looked up
   and saw the place in the distance.
 5 He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and
   the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come
   back to you." 
 6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on
   his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire
   and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke
   up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" 
   "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. 
   "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb
   for the burnt offering?" 
 8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb
   for the burnt offering,
   my son." And the two of them went on together. 
 9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham
   built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
   He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the
   knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out
   to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" 
   "Here I am," he replied. 
 12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to
    him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have
    not withheld from me your son, your only son." 
 13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram [a] caught
    by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed
    it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called
    that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said,
    "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided." 
 15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time
 16 and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that
    because you have done this and have not withheld your son,
    your only son,
 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants
    as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the
    seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of
    their enemies,
18  and through your offspring [b] all nations on earth will
    be blessed, because you have obeyed me." 

Dylan condenses this entire episode into one short, funny verse:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Notice that Dylan shortens “Abraham” to the more familiar “Abe”. Abe speaks in a modern, hipster dialect: “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”. God talks like an elementary school bully, telling Abe that if he doesn’t kill his kid then he’d “better run” the next time he sees him coming. Funny stuff. How ironic that the author of these lines would become a hardcore bible-thumping fundamentalist later in this career. Thankfully it was only temporary.

Dylan certainly got the idea for doing a song “about” Highway 61 from the old bluesmen. Many old blues songs feature the name of a highway. Dylan was certainly familiar with the various versions of Highway 61 Blues, which were done by many artists, including Jack Kelly, William Batts, and Charlie Pickett. Other titles with “highway” in their name are New Highway 51, 49 Highway Blues, 4a Highway, and 80 Highway Blues. More recently, Highway 61 showed up in Mississippi Fred McDowell’s 61 Highway and James “Son” Thomas’s Highway 61. According to John Gibbens, McDowell sang 61 Highway at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, so it’s possible Dylan heard it there. Most of these songs mentioned are about finding a woman, leaving a bad situation, looking for the ever-elusive freedom, or just weary traveling. As usual, Dylan goes a different way.

Once again, the band assembled by Dylan and Tom Wilson does a magnificent job, and in my mind, this may be the most perfect sounding cut on the album. The song simply rocks like nothing else on the record, or perhaps any Dylan record.

The piercing whistle sound at the beginning of the record has an interesting back story. Al Kooper tells the tale in the booklet that accompanies the documentary, No Direction Home. Kooper says that he used to carry a police whistle around his neck, and would blow it at parties where illegal substances were being consumed. Of course, blowing this whistle would arouse a panic in the crowd, much to the amusement of Kooper and his friends. At the recording session, Kooper suggested that Dylan replace the original harmonica part with the whistle. The inferior non-police whistle version is available on No Direction Home.


Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you’re right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored
He was tryin’ to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

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