Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited was a groundbreaking album, mixing poetry with rock 'n' roll music. Inside its songs are numerous references to literary, religious and folk figures mixed into the wordstream. This entry discusses characters and places mentioned in the album.
Highway 61 is one of the major north-south routes in the United States, especially important before the Interstate highway system was built. The road links many of the important blues sites as it runs along the Mississippi River, starting in New Orleans, going through Clarksdale, Vicksburg and Memphis before heading north to the Twin Cites of St Paul and Minneapolis, and arriving at the Canadian border by way of Duluth. Bob Dylan grew up near Duluth and went to university in Minneapolis. Since many of his influences came from the Mississippi delta, the road can be seen as a metaphorical link between his childhood and his musical heroes. The road runs though the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
'Like A Rolling Stone'
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Napoléon Bonaparte was a general in the French Revolution who became the ruler, then Emperor of France. The Corsican was a military genius and almost succeeded in conquering Europe; however, defeat by the Russians led to him being exiled to Elba. He returned and was defeated by the British at Waterloo, which led to him being exiled1 again.
Napoleon III, also a ruler of France, was responsible for reorganising Paris into wide boulevards.
The reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
Boston resident Paul Revere started life in 1734 as the second son of Paul Revere (né Apollos Rivoire), a French Huguenot immigrant to the American colonies. His father was a goldsmith and young Revere followed him, becoming skilled in working both gold and silver. Much of his silverwork is highly valued and seen as some of the best American art of the period. He supplemented his income as an engraver and illustrator.
Revere was friendly with many of the leaders of the American Revolution, and did much work gathering information on troop movements and as a courier.
Revere is best known for his Midnight Ride, riding from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the approaching British troops. During the war, he was a lieutenant colonel but saw very little action.
After the war he imported goods from England, started a foundry and even founded the first copper-rolling mill in North America. He had 16 children from his two marriages. He died, aged 83, leaving five children and many descendants. He was a popular figure and had achieved much socially, politically and economically for the son of an immigrant artisan.
The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
Belle Starr was born Myra Belle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri on 5 February, 1848, a descendant of the infamous Hatfield clan. She reported Union troop positions for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
She was a legendary outlaw, having associated with both Jesse James and the Younger Brothers. She married both Jesse James and the Younger Brothers' James C 'Jim' Reed and Samuel Starr, infamous outlaws themselves.
Judge Isaac C Parker of Fort Smith, known as the Hanging Judge, made it his aim to bring her to justice; however, he had to let her go many times due to lack of evidence. She was arrested for house theft in 1882 and spent nine months in prison, apparently the model prisoner. She was killed in 1889, just shy of her 41st birthday, by a shotgun blast in the back.
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
Jezebel was a queen of Israel; her parents were high priest and priestess for the gods Ashtoreth and Baal. Jezebel and her husband King Ahab clung to the pagan beliefs in the face of opposition by the Hebrews. The Prophet Elisha ordered the king, queen and all the followers to be massacred.
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
Jack the Ripper was a notorious murderer who preyed on prostitutes around the Whitechapel area of East London in 1888. Various theories have been put forward as to the identity of The Ripper, and countless films have been made about the murders. However, nobody was ever convicted of the crimes.
With the Tombstone blues
The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
The Philistines were a Mediterranean people who occupied the area around Gaza in ancient Canaan. The tribes were in almost constant conflict with the Hebrews, and the biblical stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Goliath were concerned with these wars. The Philistines were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians before being ruled by Persia, Greece and Rome.
Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
Gypsy Davey is a book by Chris Lynch charting the character's development after a neglected childhood. The character of Gypsy Davey appears in many folk songs, including those of Dylan's hero Woody Guthrie.
Causes Galileo's math book to get thrown
Galileo Galilei is one of the most famous scientists of all time. He was born in Pisa, Italy on 15 February, 1564. He was so glad that he was a resident of Pisa, he threw large lumps of metal off its Leaning Tower. While missing the residents of the town, he did manage to prove that the mass of a falling object does not affect the speed at which it falls.
He made quite a few breakthroughs in physics, from coming up with equations to describe the pitch of strings and projectile motion to refining the telescope. It was through his newly-refined telescope that he was able to make astronomical readings that supported the Copernican model of the solar system and got him put under house arrest by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo died on 8 January, 1642.
At Delilah who's sitting worthlessly alone
Delilah betrayed the source of the mighty Samson's strength to the Philistines and after many thousands of years is still the most famous hairdresser in the world.
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B DeMille
Originally from Ashfield, Massachusetts, DeMille was one of the greatest film directors of the 20th Century. He started out directing silent films, including The Ten Commandments and Don't Change Your Husband. In the 'talkie' era he made epic films such as Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments2.
Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on 26 April, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She joined a vaudeville troop and pretty soon after that, she claimed to have coined the term 'the blues' for the style of songs she was singing. She changed her name to Ma Rainey when she married William 'Pa' Rainey and started to tour with him. She toured with a number of bands that included legends such as Louis Armstrong, and she also mentored Bessie Smith, the soon-to-be Empress of the Blues. Ma Rainey, known as The Mother of the Blues, died of a heart attack on 22 December, 1939.
Beethoven was one of the most famous composers of all time. The German was most famous for his Fifth Symphony, his deafness and his Moonlight Sonata, which can be heard by pressing the demo button of many electronic keyboards.
'From A Buick 6'
She walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch
Bo Diddley, along with Chuck Berry, has been the one of the biggest influences on rock and roll music. Born in McComb, Mississippi, two days before 1928, he was named Ellas Bates. He took the surname McDaniel from his adoptive mother.
During his youth he was a boxer and also took violin lessons. Bo Diddley's big contribution to music was the Bo Diddley beat, reminiscent of an African tribal beat. A big showman, he was known for his stage presence and his array of strange guitars, especially his square guitar with homemade effects onboard.
'Ballad of a Thin Man'
You've been through all of F Scott Fitzgerald's books
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in St Paul, Minnesota in 1896. He enjoyed his parties and flashing the cash around. Cash he got from writing short stories and novels depicting the 1920s, such as The Great Gatsby.
'Highway 61 Revisited'
Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'
Abraham is considered one of the fundamental figures of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. His willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac for his God makes him a model of faith for Christianity, as well as foretelling God sacrificing His Son Jesus. Both Arabs and Jews see him as the father figure of their peoples.
He featured in Genesis and was one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. His first son, Ishmael, born to a servant girl, was believed to be the father of the Arabs. His second son, Isaac, born to his barren wife Sarah, was the father of the Jewish people.
God said that he would not destroy Sodom if Abraham could name enough righteous people living there; he couldn’t, and the city was destroyed. God also asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham was willing to go through with it until an angel stopped him.
Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Georgia Sam was the just one of the names under which legendary blues singer Blind Willie McTell recorded. William Samuel McTell was born into a stable family on 5 May, 1901 in Thomson, Georgia. However, his parents split up and his mother moved to Statesboro, Georgia. The split up of his family resulted later in the majestic Statesboro Blues, which proved a huge hit for the Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal. Although blind, McTell could find his way round many cities in the US, even navigating the New York Subway system.
He recorded quite a few sessions for many labels under different names, including Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Pig 'n' Whistle Red, as well as recording with his wife Kate. Later on he started recording more and more spiritual songs and eventually lived life as a preacher before dying of a cerebral haemorrhage on 19 August, 1959, just missing the 1960s blues revival.
His voice was high and clear, possibly with hints of Lead Belly, but as Bob Dylan said in his song Blind Willie McTell:
Nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
Cinderella, she seems so easy
The story of Cinderella is a popular fairy tale; its roots go back to 9th Century China. Basically she is a daughter of an aristocrat, put upon by her stepsisters and stepmother. A fairy godmother turns up, makes some stuff out of kitchen leftovers that even Ainsley Harriot would be impressed at, and sends her to the Royal Ball. She gets to dance with a prince, and unlike modern teenagers, doesn’t go all the way on the first date but instead runs home, leaving her slipper behind. Coming from the days before shoes were turned out ten a penny in the Far East, Prince Stalker roams the kingdom, promising to marry whomever the slipper fits. Surprisingly he actually finds Cinderella without many embarrassing incidents, and they marry and everybody lives happily ever after. Every winter, this simple plot is extended to two hours and bankrolls countless former soap stars in the great British institution that is pantomime.
Bette Davis style
Davis was the Queen of Hollywood, with 11 Oscar nominations, a record broken only by Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. She was born in Massachusetts in 1908 and was one of the best loved divas of the golden age of the silver screen. She stared in films such as The Man Who Played God, Of Human Bondage, Dangerous and Jezebel, winning Oscars for Best Actress in the last two. During World War II she helped found the Hollywood Canteen, a group of stars that visited the servicemen abroad.
Davis's place in modern pop culture was cemented by the Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon-written song 'Bette Davis Eyes', which was a big hit for singer Kim Carnes. The song was parodied by Half Man Half Biscuit in their song 'Dickie Davies Eyes', about the British sports presenter.
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning
Romeo was one of the star-crossed lovers in William Shakespeare'sRomeo and Juliet. He loved her, she loved him, their families hated each other, a couple of misunderstandings and some poison later, they end up dead.
All except for Cain and Abel
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, the first humans. Abel was a peaceful, righteous boy who refused to fight his elder brother. He became the first murder victim, or the first martyr, depending on which religion is viewing him. In Islam, his acceptance of death through pacifism meant that he was forgiven his sins.
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Quasimodo was the star of 11 books written by French author Victor Hugo3. Quasimodo was a grotesque creature who lived in the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. His love for Esmeralda is one of French literature's great doomed romances4.
Samaritans follow a faith based on the Torah; they were originally from a mixed line of Israelites and Assyrian deportees. 'The Good Samaritan' was one of Jesus's parables. To the audience He was talking to, a Samaritan was a member of a persecuted minority, seen as the enemy. According to the parable, a man was robbed on the road, and two holy men walked past and didn't offer help; however, the Samaritan did.
The present-day Samaritans are an organisation that aims to help people in need. There are very few ethic Samaritans alive now; those that survive are mostly in northern Israel.
Now Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
Ophelia is the jilted lover of Hamlet in the Shakespeare play. She goes mad.
Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
Einstein was one of the greatest scientific minds to have ever thought scientifically. He was born in Ulm in Germany in 1879, and was famously a clerk in a Swiss patent office before making his name with his theories of relativity, his Nobel Prize-winning theory of the photoelectric effect, as well as many other breakthroughs in statistical physics, quantum mechanics and cosmology. He was one of science's great bluffers. When trying to make a formula to prove that the universe is not expanding, he introduced a random cosmological constant to make the maths fit his beliefs. Although he described it as his greatest mistake, it has recently been proven to exist.
In later life, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel. He was also a pacifist and was on a list of people who were recommended to be barred from moving to the US for his political beliefs.
Robin Hood is one of the great English folk heroes, having many stories, television programs and films based on his life. Although there are many contradictory legends, the basic accepted theory is that he was an outlaw living in the forests of Northern England who stole money from the rich and gave it to the poor while being hunted by the men of the Sheriff of Nottingham, one of the most powerful men in the country.
The Phantom of the Opera
In the novel by Gaston Leroux, he was Erik, a deformed man who haunted the Paris Opera5 because he was in love with one of the singers. The story has been made into many films, musicals and operas, and The Phantom of the Opera has become the longest-running musical to date on Broadway.
They're spoon-feeding Casanova
Giacomo Geronimo Casanova, 1725 – 1798, was an Italian adventurer who met lots of interesting people and slept with lots of interesting men and women. His name has become synonymous with seduction.
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was born in Idaho in 1885 and was a poet. He was part of the Modernist movement. He travelled to Paris and Italy before being taken back to the US on charges of treason. He was locked up for 12 years and was of unfit mental state to stand trial on charges related to his support of Mussolini and his anti-Semitic writings. He died at age 87.
TS Eliot was a poet and dramatist from St Louis, Missouri. He was born in 1888 and attended Smiths Academy and Milton Academy before going to Harvard. He had a scholarship to Oxford, but didn't stay for a second year. He chose not to defend his thesis at Harvard, and so was not awarded a PhD. He married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, in England and became a British citizen. However, he left her, and she eventually ended up in a mental hospital. His second marriage to Esmé Valerie Fletcher lasted just less than ten years but was happy. He died in 1965 of emphysema. One of his most famous works is Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats which inspired the musical Cats.