The highway is one of the most compelling of American symbols. Constant travel went from being a necessity for the hobos during the Great Depression to being a source for inspiration. Tennessee Williams has his character Tom observe at the end of The Glass Menagerie that he was “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” He couldn’t find the answer, his place in the cosmos, at home so he had to be moving all the time. Jack Kerouac, of course, influenced an entire generation and its inheritors in On the Road about characters feverishly in search of a meaning that is never found, characters who speed from one broken dream to the next. Beyond the highway as the pathway to a life search, it can also be a pathway to doom as in Leon Payne’s remarkable song Lost Highway, a song Hank William made famous.
Singers, comedians, and other performers go on the road for these but also for professional reasons. Some singers can’t wait to get out there and do what they love the most—sing with their friends. This was the entire theme as Willie Nelson sang “On the Road Again.” (Bob Dylan also sang a song titled “On the Road Again,” but his wasn’t about touring but about a deeply flawed romantic relationship. The title was most probably not taken from Kerouac but from the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 song also titled “On the Road Again”). Not every singer, though, was so happy to be touring. The lonely grind, the aching sameness, and the longing to return to the familiar are summed up in Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound.”
These touring songs may or may not include a singer’s exploration of the locales where they perform. But whether they do or not, when a singer like Dylan tours, the primary purpose is not to search for meaning, not to find a pathway for life, but to appear in front of an appreciate and paying audience.
Dylan’s constant travels, then, are not like Kerouac’s or Allen Ginsberg’s or Woody Guthrie’s. The travels Dylan takes don’t exemplify the myth of the open American road. And these tour trips are not taken on the real Dylan Highway.
Dylan goes on his own highway by changing identities, musical styles and interests, and belief systems. His highway is internal and eternal. He doesn’t have a single place to return to on this internal journey; he really doesn’t have a direction home because he has no settled self. Home isn’t a place for him. It’s a fixed, unchanging identity.
Most of Dylan’s listeners aren’t like him. They do have a settled self, an evolving but still identifiable being. But Dylan is precisely valuable to all of us because he can destabilize our settled selves. He can force us to look at ourselves as we watch him discard selves like last year’s distasteful choices. We watch him go through the cycle: get a self, use it, throw it away, get another self. And as we witness this, as some people get furious with every style he dismisses and every new self he embraces, he gives us a glimpse of the alternative lives that lurk within us. He forces us to see our settled selves and in so doing forces us to decide whether or not we want to keep it. He is a salesman of selves, parading his large collection of wares for us to witness.
Dylan’s Highway is a learning highway, an internal journey from home to all the possible homes in which we might live.
So, angry at him or not, he makes us see that we don’t have to settle. He offers us a map if we wish to travel on the Dylan Highway.