Biblical, Take Two: Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)

DylanI was going to be an English major in college, but then I heard “Highway 61 Revisited” and changed to Religion, because how else could I get to the bottom of this:

God said to Abraham, Kill me a son
Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on
God say, No—Abe say, What?
God say, You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run
Well, Abe says, Where do you want this killin’ done?
God says, Out on Highway 61

“Highway 61 Revisited,” first verse

My story, I hope you understand, is metaphysically, not historically, true.

I’ll bet some folks were drawn in exactly the other way by this song, from taking religion seriously to taking literature even more seriously. Their guru may or may not have been Harold Bloom, who has written a lot to reclaim great religious writing for literary appreciation on the premise that great writing as such is more amazing than religious doctrine anyway.[1] This is okay. We have plenty to talk about as we pass each other in the corridor (I almost said “on the stairway” but don’t want to start an unseemly dispute over who has the higher destination).[2]

Dylan’s “Highway 61” is the ultimate biblical song because it brashly and directly hits the profane jackpot. As biblical texts repeatedly point out (and not sanctimoniously, either), the future-destroying loss of our children keeps happening all the time, and there’s no getting around recognizing the Divinity Himself as master of these terrifying ceremonies, the Police Chief implied by the hilarious police whistle at the start of the track. Nothing could tell us the score more honestly than the killing on Highway 61, which is just right over there.


[1] My favorite Bloom work in this vein is (with David Rosenberg) The Book of J (New York: Vintage, 1990).

[2] At my college the English and Religious Studies departments are both on the ground floor.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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