Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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The threshold between what has meaning and what is meaningless is not exclusively lexical in Dylan’s writing, which often has a strong visual, even painterly, quality. Numerous lines, and even whole stanzas, of ‘Tombstone Blues’, for example, make complete linguistic sense, but they present a series of images as impossible as a Salvador Dali painting:

The king of the Philistines, his soldiers to save,
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
And sends them out to the jungle.

The liminality of meaning here has less to do with the words themselves, and more to do with the juxtaposition of images and ideas that, glued together by a combination of the frenetic ‘rush’ of the song and Dylan’s precise syntax and use of rhyme, are impossible for the mind to process rationally. A large part of this is due to the use of various inherited cultural contexts that cannot be reconciled: the words ‘Philistines’ and ‘jawbones’ are anchored in cultural terms to the Samson story from the Bible, but that context has nothing whatsoever to do with the legend of the ‘Pied Piper’ or a ‘jungle’. The mind can only process these words and images by entering a liminal space in which such things are accepted and embraced as meaningless, or, to use a more specific term of art, surreal. The fatal temptation with any sort of critical commentary on such lines (and sometimes entire songs) is to search for a meaning that isn’t there. This is perfectly understandable. We all want words to mean something – we want this stanza of ‘Tombstone Blues’ to be about sending young American soldiers to fight in Vietnam, for example – and it is easy to overlook the artistry with which Dylan has deliberately and methodically denied the listener meaning by choosing to employ a set of particular words in a particular way. The temptation is always to drag such stanzas or lines back across the threshold into the realm of semantic coherence, invoking allegory, or symbolism, or whatever other literary technique might come to mind. That is because these songs still seem to ‘mean’ something powerful and fascinating when they are listened to, and they can be enjoyed time and again, remaining as fresh and ‘meaningful’ as they were when first heard.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul