Bob Dylan Rankings, #107: Highway 51 Blues

There’s not a whole lot to say about this song: Highway 51 will never be the highway Dylan is best remembered for. As I mentioned last week, Bob Dylan only wrote two of the tracks on his debut album—“Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York.” On some of the folk standards that he includes, Dylan took a songwriting credit for the musical arrangement he came up with, but on this song, only Curtis Jones is credited. The song itself is rather simple—Dylan recorded it in one take while recording the album.

It’s debatable, really, what the significance of an album comprising mostly standards is for an artist most renowned as a songwriter. In some ways, it is most appreciated as an artifact, as sign of what the 20-year-old Bob Dylan was like and what kind of folk music he was drawn to. “Highway 51” is a great example of Dylan trying to embody a tradition. His voice doesn’t sound natural—it sounds a little like someone trying to do an impression of a folk singer.

But the appeal of this kind of folk music is the sense of tradition, of taking and personalizing something external. What’s telling about Dylan on this track is that his way of “personalizing” standards is to completely embody the voice of the song. In the early songs, this sounds like imitation, the flattery of a kid for his idols. Later on, though, this would allow Dylan to write and sing songs that were wholly his own.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Shawn on August 23, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    I think you really hit it about Dylan’s first album, something I’ve been looking to see for a long long time. The first album is way better than it is always portrayed because it shows how Dylan was able to be so original: he made the covers “wholly his own” and was able to translate that idea into original material. t’s the same when you hear all the covers over the years. He puts the Dylan stamp on almost every one of them and it shows where his sound, The American Sound, came from. Something like wrote it better..


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