Thirty-five years ago, a young American History PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst converted his dissertation on Jack Kerouac into the book, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. Almost immediately, the biography became widely praised as a landmark Kerouac work -- not just for its historical precision -- but because, for the first time, readers could understand this iconic, central and, at times, polarizing literary figure in a broader American cultural context. This was more than a book -- it was a way of understanding history and our place within it.
Desolate Angel soon found its way into the hands of Jerry Garcia -- a self-proclaimed Kerouac nut. So impressed by what he had read, Garcia tracked down the author, Dennis McNally, and asked a simple question: would he consider joining the Grateful Dead family as the band's official historian. McNally agreed, but would soon put his historical duties on hold when he became the Grateful Dead's first (and only) publicist in 1984. After helming publicity during the Dead's surprising cultural renewal of the 1980s and 1990s, McNally quasi-reduced his publicist duties after the passing of Jerry Garcia in 1995, and set forth to complete his first job with the band -- penning A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
With such an eclectic background, it can be easy for the public to lose track of Dennis McNally's roots. In his new book, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, McNally reminds us of who he is at his truest core -- and that is, one of the finest cultural historians of our time. In On Highway 61, McNally succeeds in the titanic undertaking of presenting and weaving together over 100 years of history, culture and music with an unyielding drive towards cultural freedom in America, ranging from Thoreau to Twain to Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan.
What sets On Highway 61 above so many other texts is its sheer readability. While intricately researched and deeply historical, McNally does not drown the reader in esoteric cultural theories. Instead, he tells a thorough and compelling story: the engaging tale of how progressive, abolitionist ideals of the mid-1800s paved the way for mainstream acceptance and appreciation of African American music in the early 1900s - jazz, blues, ragtime -- which would ultimately trigger the explosion of music and social ideals of equality and civil rights in the '60s.
McNally begins by linking Twain's use of fiction to convey what Thoreau had expressed in Walden -- that the "fate of enslaved African Americans [was linked] with the spiritual aspects of everyone's need for freedom." From there, we take off into the country with history that leaps off the pages. As if riding next to McNally, we tag along on a massive cultural, social, and musical journey down Highway 61. Often referred to as America's "Blues Highway," Highway 61 sweeps from Mississippi to Minnesota. For years, this was the main artery through which the sounds, writings and traditions of the Deep South broke free from their southern regional culture and pervaded the greater American consciousness in a way that would forever influence the rhythm of our country's heartbeat.
Along the journey, we meet Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and Robert Johnson in Mississippi who, together, transformed cultural oppression into evolving musical styles that encompassed their experiences and memories, and expressed them in new genres of jazz and blues. Yet, it is the last third of On Highway 61 that is McNally's true magnum opus -- a final section, dedicated exclusively to Bob Dylan.
Over the past 50 years, hundreds of books and essays have been written on Dylan -- exploring everything from decoding his lyrical content to analyzing his supposed politics. McNally, however, reveals a refreshing approach to understanding Dylan. While noting his connection to Woody Guthrie and the singers of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, On Highway 61 focuses more on the social struggles of bluesmen and improvisational leanings of jazz musicians that reached Dylan during his formative years in Hibbing, MN -- just miles away from the northern stretch of Highway 61. The result, of course, is Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, which called to Dylan's "own musical as well as personal genealogy to compose a paean to freedom, a galloping rock tune...that knits together parts of his life...and all the music coming up the river [to] bring his life to that moment full circle."
As I read On Highway 61, I found myself wanting to pack up and spend months traveling on Highway 61's 1,400 miles. After all, such an iconic highway begs to be visited -- to have us drive along it with our windows down and music playing -- the hot and heavy air pressing against our skin as we leave the rural south and enter the bustling urban areas of the north. But these trips are hard to take -- maybe now more than ever -- which is what makes a book like On Highway 61 so important today.
Through On Highway 61, McNally offers an exceptionally generous gift to readers who are interested in understanding the evolution of social and cultural freedoms in America. Because by simply turning the pages of his book, we can all experience a unique piece of America that is not only known for fostering the progression of American music, but for equally expanding and defining the nation's ever-evolving sense of freedom.
On Highway 61 will be available by Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, on October 14, 2014.