Monday, November 9, 2009

“Highway 61”

Time for a little Monday Morning Blues here on RFBanjo, & this week we have my humble take on a great song by Mississippi Fred McDowell—the song is “Highway 61,” & it’s Mississippi Fred’s mournful tribute to the U.S. route that’s also known as the Blues Highway.

Contrary to the song’s lyrics, Highway 61 doesn’t “run from New York City to the Gulf of Mexico”—it runs from Wyoming, Minnesota to the Gulf, with its terminus in New Orleans. It also runs thru Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town associated with a number of renowned blues players, including Charlie Patton, Son House & perhaps most famously these days, Robert Johnson. Legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastering the blues at the crossroad of Highway 61 & Highway 49 (the latter route was immortalized in a song by the great Big Joe Williams of 9-string guitar fame). Of course, this route also was referred to by Bob Dylan in his song & album "Highway 61 Revisited." Highway 61 also passes thru Duluth, where Dylan was born.

Mississippi Fred McDowell was a master of the bottleneck (or slide) style of blues playing, which is a style I don’t play so much. Part of the reason for this is that most blues bottleneck playing is done in open tunings—that is, the guitar is tuned so that the 6 strings form a major (usually) chord, typically either a D major or a G major. But while I don’t mind re-tuning one string in performance (for drop D tuning, in which the lowest sounding string is lowered from its typical E pitch to D) re-tuning 3 strings as required for these tunings is a pain & not something audiences tend to enjoy unless you have tons of snappy patter available. Musicians with road crews can easily bring 3 or 4 guitars all in different tunings to a gig, but since more often than not I’m my road crew, this isn’t practical. Anyhoo, that’s a long way of saying I came up with my own fingerstyle, non-slide arrangement of “Highway 61”; it is played in drop D tuning for those who care about such things.

Hope you enjoy it!


  1. Always a treat to hear you sing and play, John.

  2. Great song. Great playing. I always feel at home sat in your kitchen listening to you sing and play.

  3. Loved it, John! The consensus here (between Kev and myself) is that you sound like a low-key Lou Reed. I wish I had a cd of your work so I could listen to it at my leisure. Laptop viewing is not ideal.
    That's a snazzy guitar, I must say. (Nice kitchen too!)

  4. Hi Kat: I'll take Lou Reed as a comparison! Thanks. I do think I'm going to begin working seriously on a cd in the near future, & when it's done I'll let you know!


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