Highway 61 Visited
“Take what you have gathered from coincidence…”
Bob Dylan, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”
Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft was released on the same day that an organized group of terrorists committed mass murder with hijacked airliners at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, on the hills of Pennsylvania, and against some notion of America that they had not found necessary to articulate. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan is my Elvis. But not in a Graceland kind of way. While the desire for more is always there, it is not the kind to be satisfied with any pilgrimages to Hibbing, Minnesota. Fortunately, as coincidence would offer something to gather, Dylan embarked upon an autumnal swing through the Midwest to promote the new album.
“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’,” Dylan wrote many years ago in “Highway 61 Revisited,” and continues to perform the song today. The hesitant Abraham eventually relents, asking, “‘Where ya want this killing done?’ God said ‘Out on highway 61’.” US Highway 61 runs from Dylan’s neck of the woods in Minnesota, right around the source of the Mississippi River. The river winds its way southward, down the middle of the map of America, creating a natural boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin and slicing a wide juicy gash through the American heartland, all the way down through the South to New Orleans. Not far from the bridge that caries Highway 61 over the river at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Bob Dylan and his band set up shop on the eighth of Heshvan, according to the Hebrew calendar, in the year 5762.
A couple thousand years ago, a man named Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) compiled the opinions, arguments, and stories (midrash) of the ancient Jewish scholars in what became the foundation of civil ethics and religious laws for the Jewish people, collected in what came to be known as the Talmud. “Talmud” literally translates as “study.” But one does not simply read or study the Talmud as much as one engages in conversation with it. If you can distinguish your folklore from your bluegrass and blues, as you hang onto the fact that it all belongs in a realm of a singularly deep and rich tradition, then you can distinguish your Talmud from your Torah (the Hebrew Bible) in a very similar sense. Once we understand this, we are on our way to appreciating Dylan’s art as one very talented man’s reading of the American folk tradition, and similarly engaging anyone who cares to join in conversation with it. Dylan launches “Highway 61 Revisited” with a midrash on the story in Chapter 22 in Genesis. Art like this, as well as that of Franz Kafka or Groucho Marx, has as much to do with where these approaches come from as where such artists go with them, and how they pass their vision on to us. You probably don’t even have to be Jewish to appreciate it.
Throughout a history in which the Jews survived as a nation without borders and armies to defend them, the study of Talmud remained how (as it largely continues today) to understand the most authentic voice behind rabbinic law – very much a constitution of a government in exile. Many centuries later, in 1952, a man named Harry Smith compiled some of the earliest recordings of the Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Dick Justice, Mississippi John Hurt, and others in a collection published by the Smithsonian Institute as the Anthology of American Folk Music. You probably don’t even have to be head over heals into Dylan’s art to appreciate the connection, but it couldn’t hurt.
While The Anthology obviously has yet to withstand the test of time that the Talmud has, the vitality reflected in the sustained curiosity and interest in it reveals a depth of cultural substance at the core of an Americana every bit as rich and nurturing for the traditions it establishes. “The blues is the facts of life put to music,” I once heard from the direction of the Grant Park stage at a crowded Chicago Blues Fest many years ago. The rabbis of the Talmud took the laws of Israel as they were before its dispersion by the Romans and allowed a nation to survive in a state of exile, otherwise relatively intact. American folk traditions build an American life out of the democratic experiment asserted by a revolution against a far away crown, and Dylan’s art creates a space out of that American revolutionary mind. If the blues can reflect a powerful layer of the revolutionary ethic in a civilization of exiles, then a funny little Jewboy from Minnesota laying down the blues in the manner of the Sages who preserved the ethical traditions of a civilization in exile for two thousand years is an angle too good to ignore.
There were of course other sources for the recorded foundations of American folk traditions, but Smith’s collection has been hailed in terms of profound influence among twentieth century American cultural icons, from Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter on the West Coast to Bob Dylan in Minnesota and points east. The folk music revival in the United States primed the engines of cultural selection at a particular time when a restless nation was already curious about the electric blues busting out of Chicago and the rhythms throbbing out of Memphis. And when the Hagees or Robertsons or Farrakhans take over, it will be good that Dylan brought these performances into the twenty-first century with us, sustaining and maintaining the continuity of these American traditions from Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton to Fred Rose and Ralph Stanley. Meanwhile, enterprising bootleggers, fresh from the experience of so many roads with the Grateful Dead, submit these performances upon our folklore through their heroically contraband microphones.
Speaking of which, consider the Grateful Dead and their extended family of Deadheads, all those people covering all those miles for all that time in ever expanding numbers — not in any zombified or cultic way, but rather joyfully and quite voluntarily. Consider further that the guys that played in and wrote for the Grateful Dead regularly inspired and conspired across prolonged periods of their history with the likes of other contemporary cultural catalysts such as Ken Kesey, Richard Braughtigan, Neal Cassidy, and Bob Dylan. None of this crew could paint by the proverbial numbers if they wanted to. Consider even further the tributary associations from musical influences ranging from the folk traditions of Appalachia to the blues and jazz of the cities, lyrical influences from the 19th Century transcendentalists to the ‘40s and ‘50s beats, and soon we are talking about a perpetual renaissance. The tools they had available to them will remain, and their efforts are henceforth and forever available in the toolbox of a distinctly American cultural form. Of course, America is about a lot of other things too, and those are not always, nor often, pleasant. Sonny Barger and his Hell’s Angels showed up at alot of the same parties. There are always those that would prefer to grab what they can as fast as they can, with little loss of sleep and plenty of rest to grab even more. And, far be it from us to be such a simplistic society, as there will be those in each generation as well that prefer to simply sit and watch. And this country has proven able to accommodate all of it, so far mostly with its spirit intact.
The tickets read “Wednesday, October 24, 2001,” when the first probing winds of winter blew into LaCrosse, Wisconsin, on the eve of the eighth of Heshvan, 5762, and bald eagles harvested fish from the Father of Waters beneath the Highway 61 bridge. My wife and I stayed directly across the street from the LaCrosse Center Arena. From a corner of the hotel bar, we could see the line forming outside the glass doors of the Arena in a stiff wind that had the flags tugging restlessly on their poles. Dylan is opening shows on this leg of the tour with Fred Rose’s “Wait for the Light to Shine,” a former theme song of a radio-era variety show.
One manner of enjoying a Dylan show is to take note of the lyrics that provoke ripples of cheers across the crowd through the course of a song. And what moved me was how effective the new stuff was, while the old stuff still hasn’t lost its juice. “Some of those bootleggers; They make pretty good stuff,” “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain….” “The Times They Are A-Changing” has a way of sounding fresh every day it is played, as it should. If we live long enough to learn anything in our lives, it should at least be that nothing stays the same. Not the good, the bad, nor the ugly.
“Coffins dropping from the sky
Like balloons made out of lead….”
Bob Dylan, “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”
That lyric from Love and Theft’s “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” remains an indelible image in the wake of September 11, 2001, as the old and new tend to mix well at Dylan shows. Old graybeards smile and pierced young bellybuttons sway to the very same tunes. “Honest With Me,” “Summer Days,” “Visions of Johanna”; whole stories in single lines of epic songs. If things are going to be tradition, they must be made relevant across generations.
We had general admission tickets and spent a lot of the show walking around the pit-like main floor of the hockey arena, taking it all in from different perspectives. At the start, we were about four or five bodies deep from the stage. “Wait for the Light to Shine,” “The Times They are a-Changing,” “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind,” and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” were all experienced at the feet of the master. The last one ain’t one of my favorite Bob tunes (which by no means should suggest that I don’t like it), but the guys in the band stuck this endearing little Pat Garret & Billy the Kid-style jam on the back of it.
Our crowd was treated to a fine sample of the new album: “Summer Days,” “High Water,” “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Sugar Baby,” and “Honest With Me.” Every bit a part of the cruel real world, Dylan’s performance included reminders of the “high water” of recent events and all their grim possibilities. The standard blues reading of the nearly forty year old “Masters of War” offered solid footing for contemplating the current crop of shameless opportunists who now fit the role, raising urgent thoughts today about defense contractors and their cynical toadies in Congress who keep the modern state of Israel committed to US foreign aid in order to spend it all with handsome profits on American defense industry technologies, and repeat the process with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., and around we go. What’s good for business is good for America!
The Stanley Brothers’ “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave” has been in rotation at least since the Fall of ‘00 when Dylan was touring with Grateful Dead survivor Phil Lesh. But the song about the lethal nature of heroic service overseas cut a bit deeper the following autumn, and offered an ominously bittersweet counterweight to “Forever Young,” with its earnest wish to “have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.” The final encore, “Blowing in the Wind” asked all there is to wonder in times like all times, and did it beautifully and with rugged manly harmonies.
After the show, we returned to Holiday Inn bar across the street. All these giddy Americans with Rock’n’Roll still ringing in their ears surrounded a fellow from Trinidad named Mohammed sitting at the corner of the bar, and who had only recently suffered for his name with airport security in Chicago. My wife heard his story while I enthused with the others from the audience. Being named for the Muslim Prophet cast just enough suspicion in the minds of the authorities to bring a comprehensive and humiliating search upon his head. And all the way down to his toes, and inside every single piece of his luggage.
“George Lewis told Englishman, the Italian, and the Jew
You can’t open up your mind to every conceivable point of view;
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5;
Judge says to the high sheriff,
‘I want him dead or alive, either way I don’t care;’
High water everywhere….”
Bob Dylan, “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”
Fear, ignorance, and irresponsibility are every bit as important as the things that otherwise help us feel so good about ourselves. If for no better reason than in their value as instruments of warning by which to tell and hear the stories that we need to keep the promises we make to each other, and those we are known to make beyond ourselves.
Back when they were still calling it “punk,” some friends and I would listen to bands like the Minutemen, the Violent Femmes, and the Meat Puppets on independent record labels with names like SST, Slash, and Alternative Tentacles. But it wasn’t really “punk” anymore. Punk stopped being useful when they got a name for it, and even then someone in marketing changed it to New Wave. Some folks who still respected it were calling it “hardcore,” but really we were into what would come to be known as “grunge.” We didn’t spike our hair, but by mainstream standards we were fashion-challenged to the point of repellent. Flannel was omnipresent, especially for most of our seasons in northern Illinois, and we partied too much to dwell on hygiene. As usual, by the time the mainstream named it, it wasn’t as much fun anymore, and watching the next shift jump on the bandwagon and make the same mistakes is always depressing anyway. But too often in the mainstream, where fashion dictates the lasting impression on the generations, we must have what folksinger U. Utah Philips calls those handy “decade packages.” As The Fifties had its beatniks, so The Sixties had its hippies, The Seventies had its punks, and on and on it will likely go. The better Americans that I know — and by “better” let us say those who are engaged with being American and loving every minute of it — consciously prepare themselves to live beyond the limits of those decade packages and other “journalistic conveniences.”
The work of Robert Johnson is not included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, but the work of his mentors and contemporaries is. He learned from the likes of Charlie Patton and Son House all around Rosedale, Mississippi, south of Memphis on Highway 61. Their stories tell of tortured lives in a free society. Much like the Bible, moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries and the painful consequences of the facts of life are among the more abstract high ideas and concepts in the blues, as expressed through the practical experience of singing and playing and listening and dancing. Many miles downriver from LaCrosse, and many years ago that way down Highway 61, Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in order to play like the sounds he heard in his head. Duality is a popular motif in American art and discourse. Illusions of duality created by beliefs in competing forces of good and evil, angels and devils, and even by the knowledge of Robert Johnson on one end of the century and Highway 61, and Bob Dylan on the other, help us understand the tensions through which our values become our culture. The legacy of our American folk traditions affords us brilliant ways of reckoning the slave trade with our “race music,” for example. But to really understand who we Americans are and what sort of culture we unleash upon the world, this culture must be recognized by us as being made out of the lives of real people, in the freedom where we may be altogether on our own.