The Bob Dylan Rankings have been on an extended hiatus, but they’re back today—in honor of Dylan’s 70th birthday— with “Down the Highway,” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It’s something of an odd selection: In addition to not being a particularly memorable song, it’s also incongruous with Dylan hitting an age so neatly associated with old age. “Down the Highway” is a playful and undeveloped song, and in some ways immature.
Nevertheless, “Down the Highway” allows us to delve into one of the most ubiquitous motifs of Dylan’s now seven-decade-long life: the road. What, after all, is Dylan’s obsession with highways?
The most obvious explanation is that Dylan is using the standard beat trope to evoke images of the lonely wanderer. That is certainly the case in “Down the Highway,” which is one of the many tracks from Freewheelin’ to have been inspired by the departure of Dylan’s then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who was in Italy at the time. Dylan’s usually impenetrable lyrics are startlingly transparent here: “My baby took my heart from me / She packed it all up in a suitcase / Lord, she took it away to Italy.” Dylan also employs the standard blues image of a down-on-his-luck gambler to describe his loneliness. Even the 12-bar blues progression, which gives the song its stop-and-go feel, is basically a stolen blues cliché.
For all these reasons, “Down the Highway” is a rather forgettable—if endearing—song. It’s the sound of a 21-year-old aping his favorite musical traditions.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the image of the road, “Down the Highway” shows exactly how well young Dylan understood his symbols. So many Dylan songs are about streets, roads, and highways, but this one contains a very revealing line: “Well, your streets are getting’ empty / Lord, your highway’s gettin’ filled.” This contrast between streets, which are local and familiar, and highways, which are expansive and new, is important, particularly in 1963. The streets, which connect people within a community, are emptying in favor of highways, which connect different communities to one another. This helps underscore the song’s theme of exodus, of his girl leaving him, and of him leaving whatever’s familiar behind.
Dylan himself was and is decidedly a man of the highway, from when he recorded this song as a 21-year-old to his 70th birthday. His entire career would be defined by leaving things behind: the Midwest, the folk scene, the counterculture, Christianity, etc. When Todd Haynes chose the obscure song “I’m Not There” as the title of his Dylan biopic, he was being very perceptive: Whenever there was a “there” that people began to associate Dylan with, he was almost always preparing leave.
“Down the Highway” shows that this was evident in Dylan from an early age. It’s been almost half a century since the song was released, and yet Dylan still flees from any expectations that set in—it was just 18 months ago that he released his album of Christmas songs. And “Down the Highway” shows the grasp of nuance that has helped make Dylan the most accomplished songwriter of all-time, and the most dominant musical figure of the last half-century.
Happy 70th, Bob