“Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down into the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”-Bob Dylan, from “Chronicles, Volume I” (2005)
Of the blues, Bob Dylan once said, “Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book.” Indeed, the seismic impact of Dylan’s work is largely the result of his life-long study of American music, particularly blues and folk music. In fact, Highway 61 Revisited, one of his signature albums, gets its name from the highway that runs from Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born) straight down to New Orleans. This is a road that cuts through the heart of America and carries with it the rich history of blues music. The blues and rock legends whose hometowns were along this sacred route include B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and more.
Read on to see some of the musicians who had an impact on Bob Dylan’s artistry, many of which he connected with (in a spiritual sense) along Highway 61. The following records are all on display in our special exhibit Bob Dylan: Electric. Explore the exhibit to see how these artists influenced Dylan, and vice versa.
Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers
In Clarksdale, Mississippi, you’ll find the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the famed crossroads where Robert Johnson made his mythic deal with the devil.
Buddy Holly, The Buddy Holly Story
Just west of Highway 61, in Clear Lake, Iowa, is the home of the Surf Ballroom, the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. The Surf Ballroom holds an annual “Winter Dance Party” honoring the legacies of these three musicians.
Lead Belly, Take this Hammer
Lead Belly, the “King of the Twelve-String Guitar,” was born in nearby Bowie County, Texas, just west of Highway 61.
Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits
About the halfway point of Highway 61 is St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, and also the birthplace of the Father of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry.
Little Richard, Here’s Little Richard
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Little Richard wasn’t born on or near Highway 61 (he was born in Georgia), but he had a big impact on Dylan, whose high school dream was to play with Little Richard.
Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory
Woody Guthrie also does not have direct connections to Highway 61, but there is no denying his influence on Dylan. In fact, the reason Dylan first went to New York City was to meet his idol.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues
In a 1978 interview with Playboy Dylan said, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” Well, thank goodness that happened, American music is better off for it.
That’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity.-Bob Dylan
Visit the American Writers Museum’s special exhibit Bob Dylan: Electric to learn more about Bob Dylan and how blues music had a profound impact on him as an artist.