On Highway 61

On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom by Dennis McNally, Counterpoint Press, 384 pages

Highway 61, also known as the Great River Road and the Blues Highway, roughly follows the Mississippi from New Orleans to Wyoming, Minnesota. It has long had symbolic significance as the northern route black music traveled to cities in the Midwest and beyond. On Highway 61 follows this cultural artery through time and space, tracing the story of freedom of expression in America, regardless of race or creed, by way of music — and, ultimately, by way of white people’s acceptance of black people’s music. Author Dennis McNally journeys through New England’s Transcendentalists to Mississippi Delta bluesmen, minstrels, ragtime and jazz musicians, and, finally, to rock ’n’ rollers. In the process, he calls forth the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Ma Rainey, Louis Jordan, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jack Kerouac. The story, like water in a delta, spreads far afield from that central stream — from Concord, Massachusetts, in the east to San Francisco in the west — from sea to shining sea.

McNally begins his “idiosyncratic history of the American alternate voice” with Thoreau’s establishment of “the grammar of freedom” in Walden and other writings. Then it credits Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn (in a long section) with connecting the Transcendentalists’ “pastoral ideal” to the African Americans’ struggle for their own freedom. He chronicles the resistance shown to emerging musical forms, from the Negro spiritual to free jazz, and offers their eventual acceptance as proof that music helped promote the idea of civil rights. McNally, author of Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, is adept at putting art in perspective, placing it within the conditions under which it has been made. This talent serves him best when discussing the role of folk and protest music in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Most of it is framed around the rise of Bob Dylan, who studied the music of Lead Belly, Odetta, and Robert Johnson, among others, as well as modeling himself, for a time, after Woody Guthrie. Accepting McNally’s basic premise means accepting his assertion that Dylan, a middle-class white kid born and raised north of where Highway 61 ends, was the rightful heir to Lonnie Johnson and Big Joe Turner. In a thorough reckoning of Dylan’s early influences, dominated by black musicians who range from Frank “Gatemouth” Page to Little Richard, McNally makes a convincing case.

Some of the best reading here is when the author pursues the cultural biographies of his various subjects. Especially rewarding is the section on Twain, which gives literary interpretation a social context. The long unreeling of Dylan’s ascension to fame (McNally is an unabashed fan) always returns to the theme of cultural freedom. His use of a 1963 concert with Theodore Bikel and Pete Seeger in Greenwood, Mississippi (where Robert Johnson died, and not far from where Emmett Till was murdered), to demonstrate Dylan’s importance to the civil rights movement seems a bit of a stretch. But he makes a strong case that music is not just an expression of freedom but a way of spreading it. Like McNally, we come to believe that “the essence of the American idea [centers] on the pursuit of freedom,” and that achievements in that pursuit are often spurred by word and song.