Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record

30 July 2009

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You never quite know what you’re going to get with the American music writer Greil Marcus, although I’m a fan: Mystery Train re-shaped the way I thought about American music when I was younger, and Lipstick Traces is a work of genius,  one of the great books of the 20th century. Some of the rest is more patchy, although in all of his writing there are virtuoso passages of improvisation which are worth the cover price.

So it proves with Like A Rolling Stone, which uses the song as a way into the moment when Dylan re-invented himself as a performer, and also, Marcus suggests, when American culture was also on the turn. For me the improvisation is a section – only a few pages – which links the song and the record, Highway 61 Revisited, to the American blues tradition. Other writers (such as Michael Gray) have demonstrated Dylan’s deep knowledge of country blues, and when I went back to listen to the record I realised, I think for the first time, that the very obvious blues-inflected songs on there (Tombstone Blues, It Takes A Lot To Laugh, for example), aren’t easy fillers but are about setting the tone. The guitarist Martin Simpson has made this connection brilliantly in his ‘medley’ which links the country blues “Highway 61” and “Highway 61 Revisited“, and which is worth nine minutes of anyone’s time over on You Tube. And of course Greil Marcus takes us on a lively detour along this iconic American road, the ‘Blues Highway‘.

Some aspects of the “Rolling Stone” session are worn smooth with repetition. Al Kooper sometimes resists questions about how at 21 he inveigled himself into playing keyboards on it (well, when the facts become legend…). It does seem clear from Marcus’ appendix that there was really only one good version in the fifteen or so takes, and on another day the song could easily have become one of those well-bootlegged ‘interesting failures’ of Dylan’s career.

There are other curiosities too. Tom Wilson, the producer, was fired by CBS after the Rolling Stone session for reasons which remain unclear, but may have been to do with colour, and his place taken for the rest of the recording by Bob Johnston. Johnston seems to had a fair deal of propriety, certainly by the standards of the music industry; when the first sleeves came back Wilson was not credited as the producer on Like A Rolling Stone, and Johnston sent the sleeves back so this could be corrected (his name is still there on the latest CDs). Is the sound different on the other  songs? Marcus thinks so – Johnston pursued a more ‘ensemble’ sound, whereas Wilson looked for clarity between the instruments, and going back to the record afresh it is possible to imagine that Johnston made the tonne of the record ‘dirtier’ – in fact, more bluesy.

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