Late in the spring of 1965, Bob Dylan began the recording on an album that would mark a turning point, not only for his career, but for a generation. The new album would be a departure from his acoustic folk sound that defined his music, the music that gave voice to protest and counter-culture movements everywhere.
The new recording sessions involved blues musicians who plugged their guitars into amplifiers, who plugged Fender Rhodes organs into Hammond Leslie speakers, who played drum kits instead of tambourines, and who had a decided appreciation for high volume. That album would eventually be released on Aug. 30, 1965 — 50 years ago.
The music that had made Dylan noteworthy involved raw storytelling in the tradition of Woody Guthrie — three chords and the truth! His voice and his lyrics were often rough and sarcastic, wise beyond his years, experienced and maybe even jaded, questioning and damning. But while Dylan had obviously admired Guthrie, the music that had captivated and transformed him was rock ’n‘ roll — Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Up until 1965, his music only gave rare nods to the rhythm and blues that continued to echo in his ear. When Dylan plugged in, he dug deeper into the human condition than the beautiful folk-style protest songs allowed him to — on some deeper level, he seems to have sought a rocking, more amplified, more aggressive groove.
In July of 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan took the stage with the fully amplified band and tore into an electric version of “Maggie’s Farm,” followed by Dylan’s newest single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” which had already reached No. 2 on the charts. Half of the crowd booed and half cheered. As one writer famously wrote, “Dylan electrified half of the crowd and electrocuted the other half.” It was so loud that Pete Seeger, one of Dylan’s heroes, shouted at the sound engineer, “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an ax I’d chop the microphone cable myself.” On hearing Seeger’s reaction, Dylan was so upset that he said all he wanted to do was go out and get drunk. But he had found lightning — plugging in not only raised the volume of Dylan’s music, it was the expression of the maturity of the spirit of rock music.
Highway 61 Revisited would represent a turning point for Bob Dylan, who’d questioned if he even wanted to sing anymore, and it would mark a turning point in American culture. Lyndon Johnson had just fully committed the U.S. military to the conflict in Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement was changing. The Beatles hadn’t released Rubber Soul. JFK had been assassinated. A generation was questioning the narrative they’d been taught by their parents.
Highway 61 itself runs from Canada, through Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s hometown, and through the Mississippi Delta down to New Orleans — it is the symbolic history of American blues. "Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began,” Dylan once said. “I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors ... It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”
The album, thoroughly a blues record, tells the stories of those contradictions, one horse towns, and spiritual ancestors. In terms of lyrical content, Bob Dylan wrestled with religious and historic images, literary luminaries, social upheaval, human despair, and the blues — “because something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Musically, adding a full electric blues band amplified more than instruments — it was a bullhorn from a coxswain to a generation just learning to row.
Rolling Stone magazine ranks “Like a Rolling Stone,” the first song on the album and probably the most famous, as the No. 1 rock song of all-time — they even took their name from the song. This is probably fitting because, like the rest of Highway 61 Revisited, it is about freedom and risk, overcoming the dangers and fears of freedom to embrace a form of living that is not restrained or determined by social convention, but fiercely independent, honest, and driven to question and engage the truth. These are the virtues that mark the greatest rock music, the kind that resonates most deeply in our social, personal and spiritual selves — it’s everything.
Dylan applauds those who check out of pretentiousness with its attendant structures, economies, and myths: “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal … How does it feel? To be on your own with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” No words before or since have defined rock ’n roll like those.