Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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Note: the lyrics to this song are quoted with line-breaks as they are sung rather than as printed.

The phrase ‘rolling stone’ was infused with a sense of alternative American culture long before Dylan chose it for his song. In the early decades of the twentieth century, it spoke of the outsider, the migrant worker; of the bluesman rambling through the towns of the Mississippi Delta; of those who ‘upped sticks’ and travelled as hoboes out of the Dust Bowl in the thirties. While The Rolling Stones (by their own report) took their band name from the Muddy Waters song, ‘Rollin’ Stone’, Dylan’s influences almost certainly included Robert Wilkins’s 1928 recording ‘Rolling Stone’, Parts One and Two. One factor that links Wilkins’s song to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is that, in Part One of the song, the ‘rolling stone’ is initially a woman (the roles are later reversed). The first verse transcribes:

Don’t care how long she gone
Don’t care how long she stay
Don’t care how long she gone, no
Or how long she stay
She’s a rolling stone, she’ll roll back home someday

The final line points to a surprising aspect of Dylan’s song. There is a natural tendency to think of a ‘rolling stone’ as forever rolling – that its ‘direction’ is to have ‘no direction home’ – but, in contrast to this, Wilkins’s ‘rolling stone’ will ‘roll back home someday’, and Dylan’s ‘rolling stone’ also seems to end up where she ought to be: with the ‘mystery tramp’ and ‘Napoleon in rags’, individuals she can only bring herself to approach once she has ‘nothing to lose’ and no alternative but to ‘make a deal’.

In comparison to the sense of easy acquiescence found in Robert Wilkins’s blues (‘Don’t care how long she gone/ Don’t care how long she stay’), ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a railing, vengeful song, even though it can seem as affirming as it is belittling to many listeners. Dylan himself is on record as saying that his process of composing the song began with a feeling of ‘steady hatred’, but evolved into something quite different: ‘In the end it wasn't hatred, it was telling someone something they didn't know, telling them they were lucky.’ The singer’s resentful schadenfreude, in fact, has a powerful subtext, one that is actively encouraging the woman he is singing to (and by extension, the listener) to continue on past the threshold she has been forced to cross into new and unfamiliar experiences, and to accept and value what is to be found there. Over this threshold, her relationship to characters like the ‘bums’ who were ‘hangin’ out’ is transformed. Newly christened as ‘Miss Lonely’, she has metamorphosed from the perfect but lifeless ‘doll’ ‘who threw’ them ‘a dime’ once in a while into the ‘rolling stone’ who has ‘no direction home’ and must ask for their help.

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