Sunday, April 26, 2009

Highway 61

Highway 61 Revisited: America at the Crossroads, Still
by Steven Laffoley

"Put on some more hippie music," writes a reader, "to reaffirm your idiotic beliefs." His is one of a half dozen email letters I receive, thrown like digital Molotov cocktails through the ethereal e-space onto my computer screen after I wrote an essay about America and Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone.
"WAKE UP!" screams the next message in bold caps, "and who knows, you may someday see the real world and find your place in it." I consider what constitutes the "real world" in modern day America, with little success - until the next letter arrives: "I love watching you liberals consumed by your hatred of [President Bush] a man who is moral and just and right."
And then it hits me: "Real world" America is about blind rage and deep divides.
So I think about the words "moral," "just," and "right" and try to apply them to the President. And I try to understand the letter writer's point of view. But, frankly, I can't. He's right, I guess: I don't live in the "real world" anymore. So I walk away from the computer, pour a glass of wine, and heed the first letter's advice, returning to my "hippie music," travelling again down Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.
Strangely, as the title song begins to play, I think again of the "real world" and of the real Highway 61, that tar-topped, road-river winding its way through America's heartland, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Border, dividing America east from west. And it occurs to me that Highway 61 speaks to America's other divides, historic and present - white from black, rich from poor, conservative from liberal. Highway 61 tells the long story of America at the crossroads, sometimes making deals with the devil, sometimes not.
Consider: at one end of Highway 61, near the Canadian boarder, sits Duluth Minnesota, birthplace of Bob Dylan. I imagine the young folk singer, sitting at the mouth of that highway, deep in the woods, soaking up the American history and music that rolls upcountry like deep river water, from Louisiana and Mississippi and Tennessee, finally pooling in the pine woods of Minnesota, a perfect place for the young poet to drink from.
There, Dylan just knew: to travel Highway 61 is to understand America.
Rolling south from Duluth, through red-state farmlands into Tennessee, Highway 61 runs through Memphis, the great crossroads of American music: country and gospel, rhythm and blues - the bubbling witches' brew of Rock and Roll. So too, Memphis is the home of the King, of Elvis - the human crucible of America's divides.
There is Elvis the conservative and Elvis the liberal - at one moment the polite, deferential, southern good ol' boy; the "no, ma'am," "yes, sir" obedient soldier, and at the next moment the rebellious, pelvic thrusting archetype of unbridled sexuality haunting the heart of American conservatism.
Then there is Elvis the racial divining rod. Hear him sing An American Trilogy, his kitsch singsong of Confederate American pride. "I wish I were in the land of cotton." The fat Elvis. The Vegas sellout Elvis. The prescription drug addict Elvis. Elvis as pure white America. And Elvis as pure rich America.
And yet, Elvis is pure black America, and pure poor America, the modern channelling spirit for America's three hundred years of the oppressed and negated poor, singing laments for hope, for peace, for justice, for freedom. His voice intertwines with the other Memphis King, Martin Luther King, Jr., "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, We are free at last." "Glory, Glory," sing the Kings, "Hallelujah!" America united on Highway 61.
Of course, the two Kings die, not so far from each other, near Highway 61, casualties of America's worst excesses, casualties of America's deepest divides. Highway 61 calls again, with its rolling, rhythmic story to be told, winding south, through Mississippi, where comes the echoes of countless plantation slaves, working in the heat of the sun to the picking rhythms of "field hollering," the mystic seeds from which grows the Blues, from which grows all America's music and all America's story.
Still moving on, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the junction of Routes 49 and 61, a young, skinny guitar player, Robert Johnson, sells his soul to the devil for talent and fame, for the dark American dream. "I went down to the crossroads and fell down on my knees," sings Johnson perhaps regretting his deal, "asked the Lord up above for mercy, save poor Bob if you please."
A prayer for America at the crossroads, on Highway 61.
Further along that highway, a car driving blues singer Bessie Smith and her lover strikes another, slow moving, car. Bessie's car flips and rolls, crushing Bessie's left arm and ribs. She dies on the way to the hospital. Later, John Hammond, that writer and musical alchemist of America's Highway 61, the man who discovers Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan, writes that Bessie dies when turned away from a White's Only hospital. His facts are wrong. But his words speak truth about America at a crossroads.
All America's blues on Highway 61.
Then finally, after 1400 miles, Highway 61 lands in the Big Easy, New Orleans, birth mother of modern America. If Bob Dylan sits at one end of Highway 61, then Louis Armstrong sits at the other, each a siren of America's story. Hear Armstrong sing Black and Blue and What A Wonderful World, at once speaking of America's dark, irreconcilable divides, and next singing of America's hope, a nation united.
Then again, Highway 61 ends at the New Orleans Superdome, America's forgotten island of the damned and dispossessed, reminding all America that the highway still tells the unrelenting story of rich and poor, white and black, conservative and liberal.
I finish my glass of wine while Dylan sings Desolation Row, the last track on Highway 61 Revisited. And I think again of the angry letters I received. But this time I smile and take comfort in knowing that America has long wrestled with its darkest impulses at the crossroads, at knowing that America sometimes makes a deal with the devil - but also, that sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn't.
Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You may e-mail him at or He is the author of Mr. Bush, Angus and Me: Notes of an American-Canadian in the Age of Unreason.

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