Bob Dylan depicts America as both a Dystopia and as a Place of Exhilarating Change
Bob Dylan is both the author of the songs’ lyrics and the singer of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In both songs, he depicts America differently. The language and the words that he uses in both songs are well crafted that gave such a picture of America at that time. In both songs, there are certain lines that depict America as a dystopia and as a place of exhilarating change. Most of the lines in “Highway 61 Revisited” are about the idea of dystopia whether most of the lines in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are about the exhilarating change which does not mean that both songs do not have implied both depictions.
“Highway 61 Revisited” is a song about a highway that really exists in America and this song is used as a metaphor for the whole situation in America. In each stanza, a problem is presented and the answer to the problem is Highway 61. All those problems about the government, authority, family corruption make the country to look like a dystopia where everything works perfectly wrong and bad. This song is also about dysfunction in the government and in the family, violence, and pessimism. Examples of that dysfunction are as follow.
“Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes,” (line 9) with other words this could mean that the government doesn’t care at all about the people in America. “OI’ Howard just pointed with his gun,” (line 14) from this line is a kind of a strange reply pointing to something with a gun. This shows an existence of a violence and killing.
Another example is in the fourth stanza. Dylan is singing about the dysfunction in the family. “Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night told the first father that things weren’t right” (line 22, 23) from this lines is obvious that the family relationship does not work properly. What is the most confusing are the following lines “’Hmm you are right let me tell the second mother this has been done’ but the mother was with the seventh son.” (line 25, 26) The usage of the word with is so unusual that gives an impression that Dylan is singing about incest.
Both examples are proof of a dysfunction in a family. The last stanza is about the next world war and that is so pessimistic for an ending of one song. Because this song is all about an imaginary place where everything works perfectly wrong probably that is a reasonable ending. As was mentioned at the beginning that Highway 61 is a metaphor for the whole America and what is happening on that highway actually is happening all over America. Another world war is something that seems real to Dylan at that time.
“Well, Mack the finger said to the Louise the King ‘I got forty red, white and blue shoe strings and a thousand telephones that don’t ring” (line 15, 16, 17) this lines actually tell that Mark is a thief who had all those unnecessary things and wants to sell them which probably shows that the status is so low that the people need to steal. Yet at the end of that stanza “And he said ‘Yes, I think that it can be easily done, just take everything down to Highway 61” the solution of the problem is given. It might be a little nonsense that this could be an example of exhilarating change because it gives a feeling to those who have a problem that something can be changed in their situation. Looking closer on the endings of each stanza it could be concluded that the last lines (out on Highway 61, down Highway 61, down to highway 61, out on Highway 61, on Highway 61) gave e kind of change to the stanza which begins with something that doesn’t function right.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” mostly is about the changes in American society. By “change” it could be understood all the things that were happening in that society which affected the people and their lives. Some of the changes are civil rights movement, hippie movements, and drugs. From the very beginning of the song, a medicine is mentioned. “Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine” (line 1, 2) from these lines is obvious that the medicine actually is a drug which is completely something new and it could be said that it is a kind of exhilarating change, something new that previously wasn’t. In the third stanza of the song, Dylan sings how bad things can change into good. “Get sick, get well” (line38) shows that those who are sick will get well. “Get jailed, jump ball join the army if you fail” (line44, 45) again there is a hope if in nothing else before one succeeds the army is still a choice. Yet the army is not just for heroes now. So, if anyone has a problem will not go down Highway 61 because according to this song there is always an option.
“Get dressed, get blessed try to be a success Please her, lease him, buy gifts Don’t steal, don’t lift” (line 57, 58, 59, 60) this is a kind of advice that Dylan gives the people if they want to live as normal Americans. Another example of change about the authority in the country is the following lines “The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.” (line 71, 72) If in the first song the authority was so strong that the people will do whatever they were told from these lines isn’t so. It could be concluded that the authority is disrupted because people don’t do what they are told so, which also can be connected with the civil right movements.
The idea of change prevails in the most of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It could be said that this song is actually about the product of a social change and that can not always bring good things. Mentioning the cops that will be arresting in the early May, the government that listens to the private phone lines, and Johnny in the basement that is mixing medicine can be concluded that changes are exhilarating. It is about something that before did not exist and it is a kind of a new thing, a new change. “Light yourself a candle don’t wear sandals,” (line 66.67) from this lines can be concluded that actually, it is about the hippie movement which again is a kind of exhilarating change.
“I am on the pavement thinkin’ about the government.”(line3, 4) These lines are an example of the idea of dystopia which shows that the relation between the government and the people does not function right. The word pavement indicates that it is actually about an outside world which again shows that one society can not function as divided.
Sometimes is difficult to analyze songs such as these ones because they are just not as the ordinary pop or rock song. All in all, in both songs there are examples of America as a dystopia and as a place of exhilarating change. It is a kind of mosaic and each line fills the picture. Different pieces gathered from everywhere on the end appear as one picture.