Highway 61’s place in music history has become almost mythical. In his newest book, On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, author Dennis McNally takes a trip down the highway making stops along the way to meet the likes of Mark Twain, Muddy Waters, and Bob Dylan.
McNally has written about Jack Kerouac, and penned what is considered the definitive biography of the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip. Today he takes a few minutes to talk about On Highway 61.
Music Tomes: How did you strike on the idea to explore the themes of race and cultural freedom by traveling up Highway 61 and meeting the characters along the way and connecting them?
Dennis McNally: I started research by asking the question, “What created the sixties?” I’d worked on the ‘50s with Kerouac and then the ‘60s with the Dead, and I wanted to go to the deepest roots of all that. There are some obvious things – the war, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, LSD, the birth control pill – but I wanted to see what came before all that.
I decided that America – the country we know – had begun with the economic boom of the early 19th century, with the emergence of the U.S. as an economic superpower. And that established the mainstream that values people’s lives by their economic success – which still seems to be the main goal – “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
And what I looked for was who didn’t fit that paradigm. And the first great voice of the resistance was Thoreau. And after a very long time, I realized that the things we mainly think of with Thoreau (the relationship with nature and the resistance to consumerism) were so outside the mainstream that nobody paid any attention to them until the 1960s. But where he connected to his contemporary society was in learning from the bottom of the social pyramid, from the slaves. And it was his profound resistance to slavery, his abolitionism, that began this long linkage of American rebels learning from the black experience.
When I connected that with Twain, who went from being a pro-slavery Missourian to writing an subversive antislavery masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, I thought I had the pattern. And from them to the present, you find white people studying black people – mostly through music, and becoming more civilized.
MT: What was the research like for the book? What did you find that surprised you?
DM: Most of my research was in the library and listening to music at home. I spoke with a number of authorities — Stephen LaVere on Robert Johnson, Ben Sandmel on New Orleans culture, Don Marquis on Buddy Bolden – but I also traveled the length of the river twice.
My biggest surprise came when I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and discovered that I had correctly intuited a great deal. Perhaps surprise isn’t the right word. Somebody else called it an “Ah-hah” moment. I’d anticipated a great deal, and his book just confirmed it all. I’d contemplated trying to get an interview before that, but it seemed unnecessary after I read the book.
MT: I understand you had to make some hard editing choices. How did you decide what to take out or to pare down?
DM: I jokingly said many times that the research for this book was an excuse to go back to graduate school, but this time I was running the program. I’d wanted to go much more deeply into Thoreau, for instance, and did – to the point of writing 150 pages on him in the first draft. My agent and editor pointed out that it was overkill, and distracting from the main trajectory of the story. It was actually easy to cut that to 5 pages – it was just a matter of focus.
I also had wanted to talk about place, about the River as a place (one place, the whole length of the river – not an obvious thought to most people), and included a lot of description of my trips on the river. No room for that, so it left.
MT: What are you currently working on?
DM: A cultural history of San Francisco, tentatively entitled City of Weird.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
DM: Don Marquis, In Search of Buddy Bolden, Count Basie, Good Morning Blues, Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, Howard Reich and William Gaines, Jelly’s Blues, Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles, Douglas Henry Daniels, Lester Leaps In, Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop
Keep up with Dennis McNally at his website.