I like getting lucky in a bookstore. Not like with a member of the opposite sex but rather with a discovery. Such was the case recently when I stumbled upon “On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom” by Dennis McNally. I am not ashamed to admit I missed this gem of a history book when it was originally released in October of last year, heck I didn’t truly feel I discovered Neil Young until his epic release “Decade” a good ten years into his career. The important thing is I found this book and you should too.
Some of you may recognize the author who has written two prominent biographies including one for Jack Kerouac in 1979 under the title Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. He also became the Grateful Dead’s authorized biographer in 1980 and the band’s publicist in 1984. In 2002, he published A Long Strange Trip/The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Here he takes on the broad far reaching scope of the origins of two of America’s gifts to the music world- blues and jazz. And he does it with aplomb, craft and style.
It’s a multifaceted challenge with sketchy historic records intermingling with self serving publicists who tended to adjust the facts to fit their narratives. Yet McNally deftly covers the pastoral landscape of America in sounds and race. It should become must reading on every American history syllabus. McNally weaves the pioneering thoughts of Henry David Thoureau (even dedicating his book to him) through Mark Twain into the deep south of slave country and their cry for freedom that manifested itself into the dual chimes of Blues and Jazz. The reader is taken on a musical carousel through the early 20th century when Minstrel shows entertained the elite and the masses discovered the likes of Bessie Smith and Louie Armstrong.
We travel with McNally up and down Highway 61 along the Mississippi Delta discovering the origins of our current music legacy. We travel with the gospel shows that parlay into Ragtime. We learn of the primal blues and the birth of Jazz. How New Orleans set the tone that to this day remains as America’s music incubator. Jazz aficionados will be charmed here with new insights into how did swing eminent and how did Be Bop emerge from these crossroads. And speaking of crossroads there are plenty of them. McNally's scholarship on often disputed histories like his work on Robert Johnson are remarkable. He deftly covers the existing tales while bringing new research to light. It’s a remarkable piece of work.
It all boils down to “The man who brought it all back home.” How Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan is 100 brilliant pages of folk lore drilled down to its essence. Like all the best things, in the end we of course get rock and roll. McNally is most adept at balancing the storyteller with the history professor who’s obsessed with getting it right. Scholars have given the thumbs up and casual readers of art history have found it eye opening. McNally sums it up by suggesting this deep American story is not so much driven by American’s pursuit of freedom, but rather it was the words and song that propelled it. I strongly suggest if you have the slightest inkling for American history or music, you pick up this handy guide and be amazed.