Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited: Mike Bloomfield v. Johnny Winter
“Lord, that 61 Highway, it’s the longest road I know,” sang bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell. “She run on to New Orleans, and down to the Gulf of Mexico.”
The most famous road in blues lore, Highway 61 was built during the 1920s and 1930s. From New Orleans, it veers northwest into Mississippi, rolling through Natchez and Vicksburg. From there, it cuts through the Mississippi Delta, a ribbon of concrete and asphalt amid vast cotton fields sprinkled with silos, shacks, and small towns. It passes through Rolling Fork, where Muddy Waters was born, and near Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy first observed the blues in 1903. The road journeys on to Clarksdale, home base of John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and other legendary bluesmen. Before reaching Memphis, it passes through Tunica and Robinsonville, where Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson resided and performed. From Memphis, Highway 61 cuts through northeastern Arkansas and on to St. Louis. Further north, it follows the Mississippi River valley to Davenport and Minneapolis. It passes through Duluth, Minnesota, where Bob Dylan was born, and ends at Lake Superior.
For generations of African Americans living under harsh Jim Crow laws down South, Highway 61 was regarded as nothing less than the road to freedom and salvation. “In Mississippi,” remembered bluesman Johnny Shines, “it was open season on black folk.” It was rumored that up North people could forge their own destinies amid sprawling cities of opportunity. To escape their numbing poverty, tens of thousands of people before and after World War II boarded a Greyhound bus and headed up Highway 61. For some who made this journey – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush among them – playing blues became a passport to a new and better life. The tough new music they created, in turn, paved the way for band-driven rock and roll. It’s little wonder that Bob Dylan, author of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and no slouch when it comes to blues history, chose to name a song and an album after the road that he too had traveled in his youth.
Released in 1965, Highway 61 Revisited stands as one of Bob Dylan’s finest albums. With its cryptic images and rollicking arrangement, its title song is rich with symbolism. Writing for Salon.com, blues historian Bill Wyman astutely observed that it “may be Dylan’s most disturbing composition, a tone poem of brutal capitalism, incest, biblical farce, warmongering and family entertainment, all set to a carnival beat that to this day gets his yuppie fans up to boogie at his live performances.” I leave further explication of the song’s lyrics to each listener’s imagination. Instead, we’ll focus on how the song “Highway 61 Revisited” served as a launch pad for stunning performances by the two foremost white American blues guitarists of the era, Michael Bloomfield, who played on Dylan’s recording, and Johnny Winter, creator of an incendiary cover.
The Dylan-Bloomfield Version
At the time of the Highway 61 Revisted sessions, Michael Bloomfield was arguably America’s finest white blues guitarist. He had grown up in Chicago and frequented the city’s blues clubs. His soulful, unadorned technique was steeped in the playing of his heroes Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy, all of whom he’d jammed with in Chicago. As Tom Wheeler wrote in Guitar Player, “Bloomfield’s guitar technique churned with such soulfulness that he broke a color line of sorts, demonstrating a blues sensibility uncommon among white instrumentalists and earning respect from the sacred heroes of his youth.”
Just before getting the call to record with Dylan, Bloomfield had made his first recordings with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Like Bloomfield, Butterfield had been making the rounds of Chicago blues clubs, but the musicians were not fond of each other, as Bloomfield remembered in his 1971 Guitar Player interview with Michael Brooks: “We both played in our respective clubs for a little under a year, and then a guy from Elektra Records asked Paul if he wanted to make a record, and Paul asked me if I wanted to play a little slide for him. I admired Paul incredibly for his singing and his music, but I never liked him, so I was reluctant to do it. And finally I said all right, so he took me down and I recorded a bunch of stuff in New York. I played piano and slide on two or three numbers. By then I had a Fender Telecaster, and for the slide I used a bicycle handlebar, cut off about an inch. I find that sounds the best. Anyway, after that I returned to Chicago.
“Then Dylan called me. I had met him before [in 1963], when he played at a club in Chicago. I heard his first album, and I thought it was shit. I told him that, and he said, ‘I’m not a guitar player, man, I’m a poet.’ And so we sat and talked and played all day and goofed around and got to be friends. And then he left, and I hadn’t seen him until he called me up and asked if I would play on a record with him. I learned ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and a few others, and then we cut Highway 61 or whatever it was called.”
In mid-June 1965, Dylan summoned Bloomfield to Columbia Studio A in New York City to record three band tracks for the follow-up to Bringing It All Back Home. “He could outplay anybody, even at that point,” Dylan recalled. “When it was time to bring a guitar player onto my record, I couldn’t think of anybody but him. I mean, he just was the best guitar player I’d ever heard.” Al Kooper, invited by the producer to watch the session, sat in on organ. Over two days they cut three songs, including the six-minute “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The stage was set for Dylan’s apocalyptic Newport Folk Festival appearance the following month. On the festival’s first day, Dylan performed an acoustic workshop. For his headlining performance on Sunday night, though, he recruited Bloomfield, Kooper, and other members of the Butterfield band. They rehearsed through Saturday night. Preceding Dylan’s appearance were performances by traditional bluesmen Son House and Robert Pete Williams. The stage had no monitors, and when Dylan and his band kicked off with “Maggie’s Farm,” the sound was brutally loud. An outraged Peter Seeger, grand old man of the folk movement, reportedly tried to unplug power cords as the band played. “You could not understand the words!” Seeger explained in No Direction Home. “I was frantic. I said, ‘Get that distortion out!’ It was so raspy you could not understand a word. I told the soundman that if I had an axe, I’d chop the mike cable right now.” The band, meanwhile, launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and then closed with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” That’s all they’d rehearsed, and the set lasted fifteen minutes. The crowd yelling for more, Dylan came back alone and sang “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”
Four days later, Dylan was back in Columbia Records’ New York studio, working with the same musicians who’d appeared on “Like a Rolling Stone.” As Tony Glover, describes in his excellent liner notes for Dylan’s Live 1966 CD, “The sessions seemed loose but businesslike. The session men would gather around Bob as he ran down a tune for them, singing a few verses as they noted the changes, then sit down with their instruments and try out lines and rhythms. At the time, I was conscious of watching history go down. Bob was in high gear, at a creative peak, and both Kooper and Bloomfield were positive energy fields in their own rights, definitely in sync with Bob’s flow. Bob liked working fast, and the band was good at synching with and abetting his drive.”
On August 2, 1965, the musicians recorded “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and four takes of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Set to Sam Lay’s propulsive drumbeat, the song began with Dylan blowing a toy police-siren whistle as the bass, piano, and electric guitar kicked in. Bloomfield energized Dylan’s performance with searing glides to the I-IV-V chords that framed the song, typically playing the parts on his guitar’s two or three highest strings. Each fill was perfectly placed, pushing the song’s tempo and heightening its tension. Twice during the song, Bloomfield slipped in quick, edgy, to-the-point solos.
Bloomfield played the white Fender Telecaster he’d recently acquired and used a nameless medium-gauge imitation tortoiseshell pick. His guitar’s high action and heavy-gauge strings helped fatten his tone: “I usually use Fender strings,” he reported, “light gauge when I’m on a gig and heavy when I’m in the studio. You don’t go out of tune as easily with heavy strings. I also like my action high. I like a guitar to give me pull. I like something to pull against. So I like strings that aren’t too loose. I want to feel something tactile that I can play against, so I like hard action.” His amp was either a Fender Super Reverb or an old Fender Showman. He seldom turned his amp volume up past 5, explaining, “You should be able to bend notes and sustain them for a long time at the lowest volume possible.” Soon after the sessions ended, Dylan and Bloomfield parted ways. “Playing with Dylan was just a hiatus for me,” Bloomfield explained. Harvey Brooks, who played bass on the sessions, later joined Bloomfield in Electric Flag.
The Johnny Winter Version
While Mike Bloomfield tended to downplay his role with Dylan, his playing on “Highway 61 Revisited” had a profound influence on another white blues guitarist who’d soon follow in his wake. Texas-bred Johnny Winter first came to national acclaim in 1968, when a writer for Rolling Stone magazine described him as “the hottest item outside of Janis Joplin . . . If you can imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest fluid blues you have ever heard, then enter Johnny Winter.” At the time, “Highway 61 Revisited” was the highlight of Winter’s stage set.
His first recorded version appeared on 1969’s Second Winter album. While Winter retained Bloomfield’s original template for framing the chord changes, he spattered white-hot solos all over the song, sometimes using a slide, sometimes playing bare-fingered, sometimes interweaving both techniques. His version was pure blues-rock. “To me, the blues is what it’s all about, man,” Johnny once told me. “It isn’t the only kind of music I play, but it’s without a doubt my favorite.” In the liner notes to Winter’s White Hot Blues anthology, Dave Marsh declared, “Like so many of the great players of the 1960s – Dylan, Hendrix, Bloomfield, Clapton – Johnny Winter did not make much distinction between the blues and rock and roll. That’s why what you get here is as much classic rock – including Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Good’ and perhaps the best version of Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ ever recorded – as classic blues.”
““Back in the 1960s,” Winter recalled, “I used my Gibson Firebird for the electric slide stuff. The action on the Firebird is real high, and I took off the tremolo and changed the tailpiece. I always had my amps set the same way: treble all the way on, no bass, no middle, and usually the volume was on seven-and-a-half or eight, but if I really want a super distorted sound, I’d go ahead and turn it all the way up. The guitar was usually pretty much all the way up with all the treble on. I also always played with a Gibson thumbpick.” At the time of his “Highway 61 Revisited” session, he was using a Fender Bassman with four 10s in the studio, and three Fender Twins onstage.
Like Bloomfield, Winter’s choice of slide was unconventional. “When I first started, I’d use lipstick holders, Coricidin bottles, every kind of bottle. Some things were too light, and nothing seemed to fit my finger right. All the slides I ever tried in music stores were too big. Man, it was really hard at first, and I was using it on my ring finger. Then I started using it on my little finger, even though it didn’t feel right, because I could fret and play chords too. Finally in 1967 I went down to a plumbing supply place, stuck my finger into all these different conduit pipes, and found one that fit. And that was cut down to be my slide.”
Another important element of Winter’s slide style as heard on “Highway 61 Revisited” is how he keeps unwanted strings from ringing. “It’s really important to damp those strings,” he says. “Sometimes I do it with both hands, but it’s an unconscious thing. I think I mostly do it with the left-hand fingers behind the slide. Sometimes you want all the strings to ring, but when you don’t, you just cover them up with one of your other three fingers that are behind the slide. You have to be able to do that.” To hear Johnny Winter playing “Highway 61 Revisited” live, check out the last track of his 1994 double-CD A Rock n’ Collection. Clocking in at nearly 11 minutes, this performance is, as John Lee Hooker used to say, “pure get up and boogie!”
In the years following their recordings of “Highway 61 Revisited,” Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter continued to make memorable albums. Bloomfield played with the short-lived Electric Flag, but his time in the spotlight would be short-lived. He devoted himself to studio efforts and solo albums, notably the popular 1968 Super Session album with Al Kooper and several releases for small labels. His ongoing problems with drug addiction played a role in his 1981 death at age 36. Johnny Winter went on to record a dozen more albums for Columbia and Blue Sky, playing brilliant slide on all of them. He devoted a few years to producing his hero Muddy Waters, and since then has made memorable albums for Alligator, Virgin, MCA, and CPW Records. He remains one of rock and roll’s foremost slide guitarists. And Mr. Dylan? Just like Highway 61, he’s still rolling along, delivering songs of freedom and salvation.