The real-life Highway 51 is a massive stretch of road that cuts across six states and (in a way) serves as a pretty good demarcation line between what you'd consider the East and the Midwest. The states it cuts hardest through are Wisconsin, Illinois, and - this seems important - Mississippi, as well as running through Memphis (where part of the highway is Elvis Presley Boulevard). It doesn't exactly have the heft of a Route 66 or I-95, but what the hell - I-95, as far as I know, doesn't have a song written about it.
Highway 51 doesn't cut through the Mississippi Delta, but that doesn't matter - it doesn't seem hard to imagine any number of bluesmen, packed into cramped cars and shaky buses and whatever means of transportation they could get their hands on, traveling up that highway to Memphis or Louisville or, hell, even Chicago, looking for a place to stay and a place to play. Everyone's friend Wikipedia has a partial listing of musicians labeled as "Delta blues" players, and anybody with even a passing knowledge of the blues would recognize a name or two there. There are two names, in particular, that fit in well with this blog: Charley Patton, who (God willing) I will deal more in-depth with down the line, and Bukka White, who wrote Bob Dylan highlight "Fixin' To Die". And then there's a fellow named Curtis Jones, who isn't the most well-known blues musician there is, but has lasting fame for coining the phrase "Tin Pan Alley", as well as writing the very song this blog post is about.
Jones didn't come from Mississippi (he was born in Naples, Texas), but the significance of Highway 51 could not have been lost on him. Hell, he mentions in the song that the highway runs up to Wisconsin, which is where it comes to an end; I wouldn't doubt that he'd taken that ride up once or twice in his lifetime. It must've seemed mythical to him - rising out of Mississippi and the abject poverty most of us associate with that state and heading towards the bright lights of Chicago and the not quite as bright lights of Milwaukee, where money could actually be made for playing a guitar and singing about death and heartache and being dead broke. He couches his admiration for the road in a song about meeting his baby on a house that sits along the road, but it's Highway 51 that's the star of the song - he knows it like the back of his hand, and he wants to be buried there when he dies. That road probably held far more promise, romance, and mystery to him than any woman ever could.
A state over from Wisconsin and the end of the northern part of Highway 51, Bob Dylan might have taken a journey or two from Hibbing down that road, maybe to Madison, maybe to Chicago, maybe even to Memphis. Whether or not he did is immaterial - either he or Tom Hammond or whoever else was helping mold Dylan's debut must've known about this song and its mythical tale, and gave it to Bob to sing. I wouldn't doubt that Bob knew about it as well, given the student of the blues he's been for his whole life. I wonder if he felt honored to sing the song, to wrap his voice around the lyrics, maybe to close his eyes and think about a beat-up Ford winging south "way down to no man's land", to the Delta and to hardship and to where the blues really came from. And maybe he felt an extra kinship just in singing those words, in evoking that highway, and in bringing up the memories of countless men with guitars, releasing their pain with every strum and croaked-out word.
If nothing else, that would account for Dylan's vocal performance - even on an album where he artificially adds grit to his voice, he seems to really be pushing himself here, slicing his way through the lyrics, the words fraught with emotion, either spat out like bullets or stretched unnaturally. The guitar playing matches his intensity, every string getting a workout (and, interestingly, the opening chords of the song seem to echo Dylan's later "It's Alright, Ma" - actually, I should probably have that the other way around). It feels like Dylan really wants to make sure he gets this one right, even more than some of the other songs, that he wanted the listener to shake his head and go "wowee, that kid sure did nail that song!" Maybe he did - maybe he wouldn't have felt right otherwise.