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Classic Album: Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

April 13, 2018

The boomer generation saw a great many changes in music over the years, and maybe the most momentous movement came in the generation’s earlier years. The folk music scene in some of the bigger cities was starting to seep its way into the mainstream. Audiences, especially young audiences, were beginning to crave a little more substance in their songs. Musicians and songwriters no longer had to be the studio tailored personas aimed to appeal to the widest range. Quite the opposite were true as amateur musicians were getting the chance at fame through their own music.

Bob Dylan is the poster child for this movement – bring the beatnik sensibilities to the music industry. Dylan was a quiet, unassuming artist with an unusual voice but it wasn’t how he sang, but what he sang about that got people to notice. His songs had messages. As Dylan himself explained in a tongue-and-cheek way, they were finger-pointing songs.

Despite his impact on the music scene at this time, Dylan struggled with making his own music matter. After returning from a tour abroad, Dylan admits he was disillusioned by his creative offerings. Drained from the experience, he was on the verge of leaving it all behind and quitting his musical career. Instead, he struck out to take that frustration and create something new with it. As he explains it, a marathon writing session in which he poured it all out on paper resulted in that something new. Predictably it was way too long and what Dylan described as word vomit. However, after editing down and reworking it, he was left with a song – “Like a Rolling Stone”. This creation reawakened something in Dylan and he set about putting together an album that drew him back to his routes. He named the album after the famous American route as he felt a special kinship to the road.

The album threw out many conventions of modern music to make something wholly original. Dylan’s monotonous singing was not only featured as the many vocals on every song, but was very much the crux of the whole thing. He delivered long verses, rarely accompanied by traditional choruses on which he seemed to spit out stream of consciousness verses that were indecipherable to the casual listener. Whereas most songs in mainstream music would last between 3-4 minutes, far exceed the norm in that sense. It was a risky move to be sure and there was no telling how people would react to it once it was released.

Highway 61 Revisited bewildered people with it’s new style of folk mixed with rock in long rambling form – and they loved it. In Dylan’s own frustration of modern music and his contribution to it, he successfully gave fans something new and fresh. The album helped to kickstart a music movement that put the songwriters in the spotlight and let them make music with a message. Ultimately, this helped to make way for the protest songs of the 60s and 70s which in turn gave us rebel rock, which in turn gave us punk rock. It’s a good thing Bob Dylan decided to give this music career another shot.

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