The most favoured artist in the category of cover songs is none other than the legendary American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. In fact, musicians have fallen back on his compositions so many times that it has given rise to a sub-category in his name, informally though, whose list is ceaseless. From Jimi Hendrix’s now-iconic cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Guns and Roses’ ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ to Adele’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and Miley Cyrus’ ‘Baby I’m In the Mood for You’, Dylan’s compositions have remained eternally relevant.
The name that comes up while selecting Dylan’s best covers of all time is that of the English rock musician PJ Harvey. Harvey, whose career took off in the 1990s, grew up listening to Dylan, whose songs by then had crossed the Atlantic and conquered Europe. “Bob Dylan is a sacred name in our household,” said Harvey whose parents’ record collection comprised over fifty per cent of Dylan songs.
“People like Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Captain Beefheart – all of these artists were what I grew up listening to every day of my life. And there’s a very healthy music scene in the west country of England, where I grew up,” elucidated Harvey. Not only did she cover Dylan songs in live performances with her first band The Polekats, but also gained acclaim on covering ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in her 1993 album Ride Me.
Originally a song belonging to Dylan’s sixth studio album of the same name, it was released in 1965 by Columbia Records. “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began,” wrote Dylan in his memoir Chronicles: volume one. “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.”
The road that stretched from the extreme north-east of Minnesota through Duluth which was near Dylan’s hometown, down to New Orleans along the Mississippi River, was the birthplace of many reputed musicians like Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Charley Patton and son House. Bessie Smith the ‘Empress of Blues’ died in a car accident in highway 61 while Robert Johnson, another blues legend, is said to have sold his soul for fame at the highway crossroad. Moreover, the road has been the subject for many blues songs including Roosevelt Skyes’ ‘Highway 61 Blues’ and Fred McDowell’s ’61 Highway’. Inspired by all this, Dylan produced his first blues-based album in the name of the notable highway.
Vague as most Dylan songs, it has five stanzas that deal with different problems that are solved in Highway 61. There are a number of allusions, some biblical, some cultural and some political. At the beginning of the song, as well as in between the stanzas, a siren whistle blows which allegedly was bought for policing the recording sessions but later was used in the track in place of harmonica.
The song found a place on Harvey’s album by the suggestion of her parents. A raw and aggressive album, it featured the eponymous trio of Harvey, Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughn just like its 1992 predecessor Dry. Harvey re-imagined Dylan’s song and delivered a jaw-dropping punk version of it. The first stanza ends in a husky whisper while Harvey enters in full force second stanza onwards. Apart from the album’s version, Harvey’s live cover at the Metro, Chicago is also a scintillating one. Her powerful delivery lifts the meaning of the song into another realm.