The Millions recently published guest contributor Ed Simon’s list of nominations for America’s national epic. Ed had included Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; editor Lydia Kiesling ruthlessly cut the entry, feeling that it was too cute to cross genres. Now that the Nobel Prize Committee has upheld Ed’s judgment, we run his argument in its entirety below, with our apologies for denying his prescience. As the Laureate says, “We’re idiots, babe.”
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) by Bob Dylan – There is a temptation to claim that when it comes to Dylan, the greatest epic isn’t any individual album, but rather the entirety of his collected output, or maybe even better, the substance of his very life. After all, his story is almost absurdly archetypical American, a tale of rugged individualism and self-invention in which our young hero went east rather than west. His is a story about young Robert Zimmerman, suburban Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, hitch-hiking to Morris Plains, New Jersey, where he received a folk benediction from the hillbilly Okie troubadour Woody Guthrie dying from Huntington’s disease in a state hospital. As a result, he acquired the bardic name Dylan and moved to Greenwich Village where he would reinvent American music. Performing for half a century and with 37 albums, Dylan reconciles American contradictions more than any other performer before or after. He has been the firebrand revolutionary singing for civil rights and the reactionary Christian fundamentalist revivalist; he played folk modeled on the oldest songs in the English language and he went electric; though as he put it with characteristic impishness at a 1965 press conference, he primarily thinks of himself “as more of a song and dance man.” While the argument could be made for several different albums as Dylan’s American epic, it is Highway 61 Revisited which most fully embodies the grandeur and the shame of what the word “America” means – it is prophetic in its evocations. He riffs on Genesis when he sings “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,’” but as in the original God is serious, so is Dylan’s, continuing with, “Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’” The songwriter’s genius for what critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” understands that collapsing biblical history into American is a fundamental strategy for expressing the strangeness of this country. Why shouldn’t Mt. Moriah be on America’s most iconic highway? In his lyrics, which skirt just this side of surrealism, there is a panoply of strange characters, including Cinderella, Bette Davis, Albert Einstein, Cain and Abel, Eliot and Pound, Ophelia and Robin Hood (just to present a smattering). Dylan’s lyrical logic is myth logic, but all the better to be recounted in the language of dreams. The road is the medium of the hero’s journey, and Highway 61 isn’t the only one on the album; there’s also “Desolation Row,” where “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” calling forth nothing so much as America’s brutal racial legacies. And of course there is the opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” The electric masterpiece whose performance Pete Seeger tried to prevent at Newport by attempting to cut the electrical cables with an axe, the track which inspired a concert-goer at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to scream out at Dylan, “Judas!” – the rock song which birthed rock music. A six-minute long evocation of wounded friendship, rage, and rebellion. How does it feel, indeed?