This week is the birthday of Mr. Johnny Winter who, for our purposes today, is the smokin'est blues guitar player of his generation. On another day, we might discuss this in depth; today he's it. Today's selection for Issa's Sunday Service is the Bob Dylan tune "Highway 61 Revisited."
This is Bob's re-imagining of the Abraham and Issac story, played out in the larger contest of the then (and still) impending threat of nuclear war. For those alive back in the day who remember the Kent State protest and killings ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ..."), you might also remember the sculptor George Segal's controversial memorial "In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University," that set off its own firestorm of protest, drawing on the same Biblical story for its resonance in modern times:
Looking back over the first 40 plus weeks of selected LitRock songs, it seems that there is a really formidable subset of songs drawing on the Bible. And this rock and roll was supposed to be the devil's music - who'd a thunk?
Back in 1992, Johnny Winter performed "Highway 61 Revisited" at Dylan's big 50th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. What follows is that performance; watch Johnny signaling the drummer to speed it up (!), G. E. Smith telling the sound crew to turn it up, and Steve ("Hit it, Stevie") Cropper's fixed stare at one helluva amazing guitar slinger ...
There are also two other possible literary allusions in this song I'd never caught before. Take a look at the 3rd verse:
Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the KingThis song was written in the wake of the immense popularity of the Louis Armstrong rendition of the Brecht/Weill composition "Mack the Knife." Mack the Finger sung by King Louie: oh, yeah, I'd say so. Though one of his more popular numbers (a la "Hello, Dolly"), it certainly isn't one of Pops finer moments. However, I will never say anything negative about one of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century. Somehow, we all have to pay the bills.
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.
The other allusion is a bit more generic: "Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night." Could be to Shakespeare but since Twelfth Night is a lot bigger than Will's take on it, I'll have to let that one go: the lyrical thread is a bit too tangled for me to undo.
Finally, why Highway 61 revisited? Well, it may be as simple as Highway 61 runs by Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan's hometown, on its 1400 miles trek to New Orleans. Also Dylan, ever the singer steeped in the folk and blues tradition, would have been well aware of Mississippi Fred McDowell's song "61 Highway," with its blistering slide guitar that even Mr. Winter could learn a thing or two from.
Today's feature poem comes from the California poet, Tom Riley, originally published in Lilliput Review, #67, April 1995. Think of it as an admonishment, think of it as a cautionary tale - think of it:
What You're Good ForThe ice giants
fry the eggs of the snow serpent,
the tastiest morsels they know,
on the bare backs
lads like you.Tom Riley
And here's one for those who, though perhaps success in avoiding those ice giants, have been breaking their backs with all the recent snow:
he's also in no mood
to sweep the snow...
translated by David G. Lanoue