Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #17: Down The Highway

It feels kind of strange, after the last three absolute classics, to get a bit of a respite here; "Down The Highway" is a fine song, but not on the level of the songs that preceded it. In fact, "Down The Highway" (which shows its blues roots a little too blatantly) could have slotted very easily into the first album, without anybody knowing any better. To be frank, if somebody had told me that this was another blues cover, I probably wouldn't have questioned them.

That isn't to say that there isn't some worth to the song being on the album. For one thing, Dylan plays a neat little riff throughout the song, and it's fun to wait for the moment it comes, a brisk strumming followed by a little flourish. If nothing else, it shows just how good Dylan's gotten at the guitar over the past year or so - nothing on Bob Dylan is as complicated as that riff (which isn't THAT complicated, but certainly a step above simple chord progressions). And, if you're more of a blues fan, there's some enjoyment out of counting all the lyrical cliches Bob manages to stuff into 3 and a half minutes, from the repeating A-B verse structure to references to gambling and "my baby" running off. Hell, even the idea of the highway as metaphor for restless traveling was explored in the last album, as a cover no less.

I already did a song comparison in the last post, but it might be a little educational to compare a song like "Down The Highway", which might as well have been Mad-Libs (he uses the phrase "Please don't take away my highway shoes", for the love of Jesus), with something like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", which explores similar themes but manages to do it way, way better. They're obviously in different universes lyrically, but one of them manages to be painfully personal, while the other manages to sound similar to a lot of other blues songs. Dylan, still feeling his way musically (even on this masterpiece of an album), apparently hadn't managed to discern why one is a great song and the other one is, at best, serviceable. Then again, he DID include "Don't Think Twice" on the album.

I would say that Bob was stripped for ideas and just threw this baby on to fill a side, but there are enough outtakes and unreleased tunes floating around from these sessions to put that theory aside. Perhaps, then, Dylan just included the song as a tip of the cap to his last effort, to all the blues songs he'd played and drawn inspiration from. What the hell, maybe he wanted to show off that little riff he'd written. Every classic album has a song like this - one that might not be as strong as the best tracks, but helps add to the overall tapestry. "Down The Highway" adds to the tapestry. That's as good as you can say about a song that isn't a classic, right?

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Anonymous said...

You make a very good point about needing songs like this for the overall tapestry of the record (or the tapestry of the tape). I think all good albums need their serviceable songs, their Down The Highways. From A Buick 6 is certainly no Like A Rolling Stone but I wouldn't want to be without it, you know? Tomorrow Is A Long Time and Let Me Die In My Footsteps might be better songs than Down The Highway, but I try not to think of them as either/or situations. Just like Up To Me is more of a singular achievement than Meet Me In The Morning (another line-repeat-rhyme blues progression), but I wouldn't say a better album would've resulted from swapping one out for the other in that exact spot in the sequence. Like you say, this is coming after a murderer's row sequence of immortal Dylan classics, so maybe a bit of a respite was in order before the back-to-back jacks at songs 6 and 7.

So as much as I like a lot of the outtakes from the 60s and 70s, I don't think this becomes a detrimental issue until you end up in situations like, "Watered-Down Love is certainly no Angelina but I wouldn't want to be without it, you know?" except then you're without Angelina on an album with some songs that are lesser compositions than Watered-Down Love. (But I'm probably going to contradict myself by the very next album when I will probably be agreeing with you about how The Times would've been a richer record with Lay Down Your Weary Tune to offset some of the bleakness.)

I do agree that, of the many songs Dylan would end up writing out of the blues archetype, this is one the least inventive. I like the turn in the last verse from "the highway" to "your highway" (I presume the Lord's, after the song turns to address Him), which literalizes the highway-as-life metaphor. As much of a generic blues as it is, the verses about the ocean taking his baby and said baby taking his heart to Italy (...Italy) also makes this one of his more literally personal songs, as biographically well-documented as The European Rotolo Situation was. In that aspect, Down The Highway makes for a lyrical companion to Boots Of Spanish Leather, each of them caused by that damn baby-taking lonesome ocean, with Spain replacing Italy (...Italy). Consolation prize: the loss of highway shoes conveniently offset by Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

I'm drawing a blank thinking of the earliest batch of somewhat forgettable songs he wrote, but I think Down The Highway would have to be his first original composition using this lyrical blues form, right? It'd have to be either this, Rocks And Gravel, or Ballad of Hollis Brown. As dreary as Hollis Brown is, Dylan imbues the lines in the blues structure with more poetic language. This is a practice he would build on throughout his life as a songwriter, from Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and Down Along The Cove, to Meet Me In The Morning and Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking, on through Cat's In The Well and Dirt Road Blues.

No less than four songs on the last two albums utilize this style, and I think that it lends itself well to the kinds of songs he's been writing, with the stacking of lines and images and fragments of phrases next to and on top of each other. It's a long way from "Lord I really miss my baby, she's in some far off land" to the verbosity packed in latter days lines like "The landscape is glowin', gleamin' in the golden light of day" and "She says you can't repeat the past, I say what do you mean you can't, of course you can." A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald being reappropriated through 5-bar blues being a quintessential example of the kinds of literary juxtaposition that is taking place in these new songs. At the same time, it's a very short way from "I been gamblin' so long, Lord, I ain't got much more to lose" to "Woke up this morning, I must've bet my money wrong."

Jacek Bełc said...

"Consolation prize: the loss of highway shoes conveniently offset by Spanish boots of Spanish leather."

Haha, brilliant!

However, I strongly disagree with you both as to this song's merits. As far as I'm concerned, the opening to Freewheelin' is a four-punch affair, finally let down by Bob Dylan's Blues. I consider Down the Highway to be as "painfully personal" a song as Don't Think Twice, but disguised by the blues structure & feel, as if it all hurts too much for Bob to even be able to confront the pain outright yet. The vocal delivery and yes, that fantastic little riff—it's all just so damn lonely.

Great blog, by the way! Here I am disovering it years later, sad to see that you've slowed down but impressed you made it as far as you did. It was an excellent idea, anyway, and your posts are solid.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, than you for another fine analysis. When you need a rest come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box, relax and listen to every version of every song.