Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album cover

I listened to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album caught my attention when I was about 16 years old. As a child, I hated Bob Dylan’s voice, but I felt differently as a teenager. Within a couple of months, I knew all of the words and sang along to the whole album. My experience with this album proved a challenge, because my desire to sing along often prevented me from giving a closer listen. When I did, new layers of the songs showed themselves. Some refreshing, some disappointing.

The accompaniment in several of the tracks is a little chaotic, as if everybody knew the tempo and chords and had at it. The vocals and harmonica are the focus of all songs, so the other instruments are not immediately noticeable. While each instrument plays great accompaniment to the vocals, they are all playing the same song independently.┬áThis creates peculiar interactions, but more often creates the sensation that everybody is jamming along in the room. The exceptions feel more cohesive as songs. There’s a lesson here to remember the whole when writing and performing each individual instrument. I enjoy atmosphere of a loose group of traveling musicians having a chance meeting and playing songs together, but I do wonder how the songs would sound if they were better orchestrated.

This may be why Desolation Row feels so right; the last song of the album has stripped down accompaniment of two acoustic guitars over an unimposing bass guitar. In contrast, my favorite track Queen Jane Approximately sounds particularly unrehearsed with several instruments simultaneously playing as if they have are lead accompaniment without knowing what to do. The organist seems to be trying out different ideas with the tape rolling. I realized this after making a conscious effort to focus on individual instruments. The electric guitar’s activity fiddles about in a similar manner. The song opens beautifully with piano and guitar, but loses that sense of planning soon after the vocals start.

The lyrics drive this album; therefore, the focus is always the vocals that deliver them. Lyricists can learn a lot from the work of Bob Dylan. Though certainly dependent on the music, the words on this album read like formal poetry more than rock lyrics. Bob Dylan adheres to consistent structures of rhyme and rhythm for the words on all of these songs. Sometimes the determination to rhyme lead to some word choices that are at times amusing, clever, and inspired. Some of my favorite examples are in “Tombstone Blues”. Each verse is a pair of stanzas. For each stanza, the first three lines rhyme and then the last line of each stanza rhymes with the other. The third verse has the great rhyme of “sick in” with “chicken” making both lines even more memorable than they would be already. This verse also provides examples of Dylan’s ability to write meaningful lines with what would normally have been nonsense rhymes.

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

Bob frequently uses an epistolary phrasing on this album. He is speaking TO somebody in particular. In narrative “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Dylan utilizes 2nd person perspective. However, the tone tends towards condescension. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, but whereas Alice was naive, curious and able to hold her own, the titular Mr. Jones is an uptight square that just doesn’t get it.

Most of what I come away from this album learning is the importance of working on and revising the lyrics; And also to not be afraid of the structures of formal poetry. That and to write individual instruments parts to be in conversation (not necessarily agreement) with each other.

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