The very first road trip we took with the (then) new VW Tiguan was a journey down the northern half of the Great River Road (GRR) – a route that follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters outside Bemidji all the way to New Orleans. US Highway 61 also follows approximately that same route although the GRR follows the river closer than does Highway 61.
On that first trip we spent a couple of days in Bemidji and then followed the river south into Iowa. There is something enchanting about the northern end of the Mississippi River. It grows large quite quickly and as you follow it from stream to river to working body of water it speaks forth new possibilities and dares you to try them. From Lake Pepin (at Redwing, MN) south through the Iowa and Missouri portion of the river (or along Illinois, if one is on the eastern side), it beckons much the same way the sea beckons to those who live on the coast.
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I discovered Bob Dylan in backward fashion. The first album of his I ever owned was Slow Train Coming (1979), his first album in his short-lived stint as a Christian. (He had two more Christian albums: Saved and the rather angry Shot of Love. His bitterness toward Christian mean-spiritedness was quite evident in Shot of Love. That was followed by Infidels. By that time, as the album title indicates, he had abandoned Christianity, but not faith, as he returned to the Judaism of his childhood.) A few years later I picked up a copy of The Basement Tapes (1975), which turned me into a Dylan fan. But by that time I was a poor seminary student and wasn’t buying albums (except for a used copy of The Basement Tapes), so that was the end of my Dylan collection.
Shortly after our GRR road trip from Bemidji to points south I discovered Dylan’s classic and (arguably) best album, Highway 61 Revisited (1965). I’m not sure I would have appreciated that album in its fullness without the GRR road trip. Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) grew up in Hibbing, MN (west of Lake Superior in the Iron Range). Like Tom Sawyer before him, he wanted out of and beyond his small town to experience the great wide world. But the Mississippi River itself was no longer the passageway that it was in Mark Twain’s time; blacktop had replaced the waterways. US Highway 61 – that great road that parallels America’s great river – became the metaphor for his move from Hibbing to Minneapolis and ultimately out into the big wide world of New York City.
The conceptual distance from Robert Zimmerman, middle class child, to Bob Dylan, folk singer, was every bit as great as the conceptual distance from Hibbing to NYC. He grew up a Middle America, middle class kid who lived a pretty ordinary middling sort of life. But he claims that as a kid he could pick up a blues radio station from Shreveport, LA after dark (thus the Highway 61 metaphor). That world down there became both his siren song and the template upon which to build his new persona. As he left Minnesota, he left his Midwestern persona behind, adopting a southern, bohemian, roots, disadvantaged poet persona much more typical of Shreveport or the delta region (central Mississippi). The transformation from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan was essentially a journey down Highway 61.
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This summer we had the opportunity to complete our Great River Road road trip because my sister’s house, in Port Gibson, MS is 0.6 miles off the Great River Road (according to the GPS). On the way home from Port Gibson we followed the GRR through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois nearly completing the whole route. (We never made it from Port Gibson to New Orleans.)
This trip was a bust. Once the Mississippi and Ohio rivers join, the Mississippi is so fenced in (with levees, straightening projects, dredging, and the like) that it ceases to be the romantic highway through the center of the U.S. St. Louis offers the best analogy. The Gateway Arch, towering over downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, is a romantic and majestic symbol of everything the West has to offer. It beckons travellers to dream of possibilities yet untapped, to move out, to move on, to try something different.
East St. Louis, Illinois, on the other hand, is so dead (and as a result, dangerous) that when they built I-70 through town, they built the portion through East St. Louis as an elevated highway, far above (and theoretically safe from) the town below. If the Gateway Arch marks the promise of what can be, East St. Louis marks the entrapment of what often happens after “what can be” fails to work out like we hoped.
Just as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis represents the spirit of the Mississippi River from Bemidji to St. Louis, so the industrial wasteland of East St. Louis represents the spirit of the Mississippi River from there to New Orleans.
… which brings me back to Bob Dylan.
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There is something romantic and hopeful about the counter-cultural musician. But recreating one’s identity from average middle class white kid into the poet of protest for a generation is only half the story. The other half is sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, which took control of Dylan’s life. The other half is also big time record labels that fence in a musician every bit as much as the levees fence in the Mississippi River. As romantic as the upper half is, it inevitably leads to the lower half of the journey.
I suppose you could call Dylan’s Christian phase his mid-life crisis. It was his way out of the constraints that had so overtaken his life. Of course it turned out that Evangelical Christians turned the screws on Dylan far tighter than anything he had experienced previously. To be a Christian musician, it’s not particularly important to be Christian, but it was supremely important (in the 70s at least) to be clean-cut and clean-living with a conservative social conscience (against abortion but for the war). Dylan didn’t quite fit the image and was crucified by the Evangelical music industry and its followers. They tried to dredge him, straighten him, put levees up against his wacky ideas.
Instead he abandoned the evangelical ship and tried something different. Since then he has pumped out numerous albums, all with a bit of the old Dylan social conscience. But for the most part he has settled into the life of a working musician – touring, writing music, working with other musicians.
It’s not quite what he envisioned when, as a kid, he heard the music from the far end of Highway 61. Neither is it what he had when he revisited Highway 61 in 1965, at that moment every bit as big and influential as the Beach Boys. But now he knows where Highway 61 goes and how it really turns out.
Like our journey up the southern half of that fabled road, it turns out that sometimes it’s better to take a different route altogether. Let’s call it “Highway 61 Re-routed.”