I have, over the last few years, spent an immoderate amount of time hunching before a microfilm reader on the second floor of the Dallas County Public Library in Selma, Alabama. I’d been travelling there regularly while reporting out a long story and, without fail, part of almost every trip would entail combing through newspapers from 1965. My hand on the broken control wheel, I would spin through stories about the first American combat troops on the ground in South Vietnam, who arrived the day after Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies beat, whipped, and gassed nonviolent Black demonstrators on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Stories about the Russian cosmonaut who became the first man to walk in space and about the holiday-weekend sale on chicken fryers. Stories about the release of The Sound of Music and the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk. The riots in Watts and a murder trial gone to recess so that a juror could advise his son on which football scholarship to accept.
On the gloomy, backlit screen, the film flitted forward then back, then forward again. Time with all its stories fit to print coiled and uncoiled on the reels with the slightest turn of the wrist. The microfilm reader provided a useful way to approach the delerium, the deep alienation and acceleration of 1965.
And it’s at the midpoint of this tumultuous year that Bob Dylan and a clutch of backing musicians recorded Highway 61 Revisited—a series of dispatches from within the upheaval.
It’s worth noting that when Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in 1961, he didn’t have much use for the daily paper. He was following different stories, different eras. He’d wander into Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal St. to spin old 78s, peruse sheet music from cowboy songs and sea shanties, read folktales and Wobbly journals. “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight,” Dylan writes in his memoir Chronicles, Vol. One. The sinking of the Titanic, the flooding of Galveston, “this was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.”
He was crashing, then, on a friend’s couch and was working his way through the books that lined the walls: Russian novels and romantic poetry, art books, how-to books, “stuff that could give you real hot dreams.” An archeologist, he called himself. But he wasn’t simply excavating the past. He was attempting to travel back in time to inhabit it. He’d read long poems and try to hold as much in his mind at one time as possible. He’d inhale tome after tome—Byron, Tolstoy, Balzac. Especially Balzac. “You can learn a lot from Mr. B,” he writes in Chronicles. And note what he writes next, how he refers to Balzac, the tense he uses: “It’s funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind.” Companions. Present tense. He found a way to get back there and be with him.
So maybe it’s understandable that Dylan found himself unmoved by the pop songs of the day. When you’re hobnobbing with Balzac and watching the Titanic go down, the radio might pale in comparison. Still, he switched it on every once in a while, if only by force of habit. “Whatever it played reflected nothing but milk and sugar and not the real Jekyll and Hyde themes of the times.” Dylan renounced the pop charts and its 45s which, he thought, were ill-equipped to contend with or capture the schizophrenia of the day. Instead he found ballast in the deep time of the long-play record and the traditions of the folk song.
He spent his nights at the Gaslight Cafe, where he distinguished himself among the folk revival crowd with his capacious repertoire. He soon caught the attention of John Hammond and signed with Columbia. But by 1965, four years and four records in, the old songs—the protest anthems, the talking blues, the finger-picking—had gone cold on him. And he chafed against his lionization. The voice of the generation? What did that even mean, man? As he told an interviewer that year, his old material consisted of “stuff which had reasons to be written, which anybody worth anything could see through.” He’d found a way to address the madly complicated modern world, but the topical protest song had come to feel insufficient, naive. Its motives too clear, its purpose too transparent.
Ah, but by 1965, while Dylan was slogging through a solo tour of England, the Beatles and the Stones were expanding the possibilities of a pop song with each new single. Cosmonauts exiting the shuttle to walk in space, proving to Dylan that pop charts, too, could contain and agitate the foment of the times. The radio was a Jekyll and Hyde theme of the day, and thus had to be reckoned with.
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that an artist able to be present to so much past might at some point be present to, well, the present. Why not do it all, all at once? Why not make ambitious art that rubbed elbows with Balzac and could play on the radio? So Dylan started chasing a sound that he would later come to name “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” He’d waded into this territory that spring with the release of Bringing It All Back Home—one side acoustic, one side backed by a band. Then, that summer, with Highway 61 Revisited, he jumped in with both feet. And calamitous songs poured forth.
It’s likely that if you know anything about Dylan “going electric” then you know about the boos at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan and his band produced enough feedback to make Pete Seeger wonder where he’d left his ax. Or, in Manchester, England soon after—the heckler’s “Judas” accusation and Dylan’s response: an exhortation to “play it fucking loud.” These anecdotes might help characterize Dylan’s irreverence and his restlessness but there was something else afoot that summer, a deeper re-orientation to his sound, to his audience, to the past.
“I wanted to call that album Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan told his biographer Robert Shelton. “Nobody understood it. I had to go up the fucking ladder until finally the word came down and said: 'Let him call it what he wants to call it'." And a good thing, too, for it is precisely the right word. Revisited. You know Highway 61: the road that crosses 49 in the Mississippi Delta where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil so he could play the guitar. But as it appears here, it wasn’t some lost highway to be rediscovered or revived. Highway 61 was there, always had been. He’d long ago worked out a way to go back, now he wanted to see what carried forward. A revisitation suggests a here and a there. There he’s with Balzac and Muddy Waters, here he’s re-writing the chords to “La Bamba” to make a six-minute pop song.
Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie used to sing of the Gypsy Davey in the sort of song that Dylan might once have faithfully covered. But on “Tombstone Blues,” Gypsy Davey comes around again, this time with a blowtorch and a faithful slave and a fantastic collection of stamps. Quick on his heels are Galileo, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, and Beethoven. “I wish I could write you a melody so plain,” Dylan laments at the end of that song. But no plain melody will do. You can’t step in the same river twice, Dylan seems to argue, as Hereclitus once did. Because it has changed and so have you and besides, a hard, agent-orange-tinted rain has fallen, too. The past still presses forward, continues to form the contours of the present.
“My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing,” Dylan said the year after he recorded the album. “The newer ones are about the same nothing—only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called nowhere.” It’s one thing to sing about nothing. But to sing about it from nowhere? Now there are dimensions to it. Echoes. Hauntings. Revisitations. There’s a palindrome at work in a revisitation that’s missing from a revival. The “timelessness” of a folk song means it can be sung from anywhere. Now, with Al Cooper’s slow-on-the-uptake organ and Mike Bloomfield’s coiling guitar, Dylan is singing specifically, insistently, from June, 1965. And in that moment, Dylan tried to hold together all the previous moments that blew through it. “For as long as it lasted,” Greil Marcus writes about “Like a Rolling Stone,” “the sound would be the world itself…No sound holds the cataclysm the song is becoming; its general chaos is its portrait of everyday life.”
But for an album about nowhere, and which begins with such an assertion of uprootedness, the songs chronicle so many specific nowheres along Highway 61. The room you walk into with your pencil in your hand, where you want this killing done, where they’re resurrecting Paul Revere’s horse, where you receive Queen Jane and all her creations and conclusions. And, finally, when there’s no direction home, there’s Desolation Row.
Over the eleven minutes of the album’s closer, Dylan spins a zoetrope of dejection—historical and archetypal figures wandering into and out of Desolation Row. For the first twenty years of listening to the song, I thought I had a handle on which were historical and which were archetypal.But that changed recently. Not, as you might think, in the portal of the microfilm reader, but rather on the ride home.
The road from Selma to Auburn takes me through Montgomery, where, on the city's highest ground, stands the Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, erected by the Equal Justice Initiative, is a square colonnade of steel markers, commemorating the victims of lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950. There’s a marker for each county in which a lynching took place—over eight hundred in all, arranged around four hallways. Many of the lynchings commemorated here took place in the South, but not all. The memorial tells of the 1920 public murders of three Black circus workers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie in Duluth, Minnesota—an event that attracted 10,000 onlookers. Photographs of the crowd surrounding the bodies of the three men were distributed as postcards.
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” Dylan begins “Desolation Row.” The circus is in town, he tells us. And here comes the blind commissioner in trance, followed by a restless riot squad. Duluth, I came to learn, is one of the northernmost cities along Highway 61, where, in 1920, Dylan’s parents were living and where, twenty years later he would be born.
In the memorial’s first hallway the markers appear as columns, connected to the ground, holding the weight of the roof. When you turn the corner into the second hallway, though, you realize this is not so. The ground descends but the markers stay in place, so by the time you reach the end of the hallway, the markers are high above you. On my first visit to the memorial, I looked up at the markers as if I were among the 10,000 in Duluth that night in 1920, looking up at Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie.
This act of imagination is by design. And it’s similar to what Dylan must have done to pen that first verse of “Desolation Row.” He ends the verse by telling us that he’s been watching it all unfold with his lady there on Desolation Row. He put himself there. Reckoning with 1965 still entailed reckoning with 1920.
“There is a path to recovery and reconciliation when we tell the truth about our history in the public square,” the Equal Justice Initiative posits. That can only begin when white Americans square to this harrowing, discomfiting truth about our past, then use that truth to better understand our present. Doing so can be alienating—from communities, families, even from a sense of self. But, if we hope to change, that desolation is an essential first step. The songs of Highway 61 Revisited posit one way for that to sound. “Don’t send me no more letters, no,” Dylan tells us in the last line of the album, “Not unless you send them from Desolation Row.”
—Connor Towne O’Neill