For almost a quarter century, Dennis McNally held a job that could be considered an ultimate dream or nightmare, depending on one’s perspective — he was the official publicist for the Grateful Dead. And while he freely and proudly admits to being a “Deadhead” before and during his stint with the legendary band, he came by the job in an unusual way — in 1979, Dead figurehead Jerry Garcia read a book McNally had worked on throughout the 1970s, titled Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America and hired him to write the band’s story. McNally’s second book was thus A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, the definitively authorized but “warts and all” story, published in 2002.
A little math indicates that McNally is not a fast writer; he spends about a decade per book. As it should be, as he is a professional scholar, holding a Ph.D in history and very serious about his research. But his writing is not the dense prose of an academic, even when covering the serious and complex ethnomusicology that is the topic of his new book, On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Still, like any good professor, he has a thesis, and it is that music, namely African-American music, has had a profound influence not only on the arts in America but on our politics and very way of life — or at least in some times and places. Hardly striking on the face of it, maybe even obvious, but in his book McNally ties many strands and names together in ways not yet envisioned by the scores of authors who have written on jazz, blues, folk, rock and more. Iconic music names like Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and many more have already been covered exhaustively by others, but not in a way that links in Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and the entire scope of forces leading up and into the civil rights movement and “the sixties” — and, for example, the Grateful Dead.
The longtime San Francisco resident and ACLU activist sat down amidst frolicking dogs on a park bench to talk about his new magnum opus.
Why Highway 61? — it’s both literally and metaphorically important, right?
Yes. The real Highway 61 runs from the Canadian border to New Orleans, and is essentially synonymous with the Mississippi River. There’s this incredible current of energy, both water and otherwise there, running through the heart of America. It’s the lifeblood of the entire continent. The Midwest has had this image of stability, “normality,” long before the 20th century even. And so much of the great American music that is the main subject of the book manifested within 50 miles of the banks of that river, from ragtime and jazz and blues onward.
You cover all that music, and wind up with Bob Dylan’s explosion of creativity and influence in the 1960s. How was he linked in to that highway?
Dylan, when he was still a teenaged Bob Zimmerman up in Minnesota in the 1950s, listened to a radio show out of Little Rock, Arkansas named “No-Name Jive.” The DJ was a white guy named Frank “Gatemouth” Page, the “mouth of the south” who played all kinds of black music of the day, and Dylan was just fascinated by it all. And it changed his life, and thus indirectly, many others’ lives as well.
One thread through the whole book as you trace the origins of jazz, blues, folk and more was that black musicians made the music but were not really recognized outside of small circles until white promoters and record label owners took them on and garnered them exposure. You identify it as “love of black music, but not blackness itself.”
Try and imagine American music without black music — it would be a really short stack of records! There is no such thing as “pure” white or black music. It’s just a dumb distinction. If you look at any kind of music — take country music — Jimmie Rodgers is supposed to be the father of country, and it’s easy to trace the black influences that formed him, or Hank Williams, too. But we have to remember how prevalent racism has been throughout our history.
You quote the infamous snarky remark by Sonny Boy Williamson about white boys wanting to play the blues so badly, and doing just that…
Well, you could understand why some of these originators could feel a bit negative about only white musicians being able to make their music popular. Some have tried to dismiss, say, Robert Johnson as not being so great since he didn’t sell any records in his time. But since the 60s, say, we’ve been able to recognize a genius regardless of his sales or color.
There are so many books on jazz, blues, folk, and must be 100 books on Dylan — what were you trying to do differently and new with this one?
What’s unique about this book is connecting a chain of events that starts at least as far back as the 1840s to the 1960s. In fact, a couple of editors rejected the book saying, “We know this stuff already.” And yes, we know Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and caused a historic stir, but I’m a trained historian and context is everything, and nobody ever drew all these threads together before so far as I know. I started with a question, and didn’t know the answer for three years of research, and then it was seven more years to write it all.
So what was your question?
My mission was to ask, “Why did the 60s happen — what led Americans to ask the most critical and serious questions about the dominant American ideology?” And eventually I saw that I had to start with Thoreau, who started the idea of social criticism when modern America really got started. America as we know it, the corporate state, really started not with Columbus or even the American Revolution, but in the early 1800s with Alexander Hamilton and the idea that “freedom” was really about making as much money as possible, however one chooses. And Thoreau stood up and said, “Eh, maybe not so much.” He argued there were other forms of freedom, of thought, of religion, of political philosophy. So he established a certain path, based upon him being an abolitionist, relating to black people at the bottom of the pyramid, as having worth and even something to teach us. And that tradition went to Mark Twain, who starts off as a basic Missourian product of the slave system and winds up producing Huckleberry Finn, the era’s masterpiece of anti-slavery literature.
And what was your answer, in a nutshell?
The revolutions of the 60s can be traced to the relationship of black people to white culture, and specifically the music, from minstrelsy in the 1800s all the way to Bob Dylan.
So the music was key to the spread of progress from then on.
Certainly a key, if not the key. The generation that came of age after emancipation saw an explosion of talent and creativity, with jazz, ragtime, and blues and as that seeped out into the white world over the course of the 20th century, you saw massive social change. Beyond the modern influence of thinkers like Darwin and Freud, there was an increasingly secular society. And one thing that pushed things even more than suspected was dancing — dances based on ragtime, like the foxtrot. In the 60s I recall thinking of the foxtrot as dopey and boring, but in the early century it was revolutionary. Same thing happened in the 1920s and 1930s with jazz, in the 1950s with blues and the 1960s with rock and roll.
The Beats in the 1950s were a key element of this white discovery of black music too, right?
Yes, and I write of Jack Kerouac’s first discovery of black be-bop jazz and that became key to much Beat writing and such.
You note that Dylan’s first serious girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who was with him on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” LP in 1963, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement — you imply she was a huge influence on him, intentionally or not.
She had more of an impact on him than she ever dreamed of. They met about two months after the Freedom Rides, when she worked for CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality. The Rides were an attempt to desegregate the interstate bus system. At one point the buses were fired on, which got the attention of President Kennedy, who sent people to the South to figure out what was going on. When a Freedom Rider named Diane Nash was told, “Somebody’s gonna get killed here!” her reply was, “Then others will follow them.” That’s not just bravado — they knew their lives were at risk, and kept on. And I can only imagine how a 19-year-old Bob Dylan hears this and recognizes the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. Not just that it might win — I don’t really know if it’s won to this day — but that it was a shining example of morality in action. It informed the rest of his life.
But Dylan soon rejected being the “voice of a generation,” the activist mantle, that had been thrust upon him. He seemed to hate that.
Well, yes, and that likely started with the assassination of JFK, which took everybody’s idealism down. It so lowered his image of society as a whole that he had to walk away. But just because he walked away from the movement, that does not mean he walked away from absolute commitment to freedom. The songs he wrote after the ones that made him famous — “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and so on, were still about personal freedom and commitment.
With the fractioning of our culture, there hasn’t been a real spokesperson who inspires and unites young people, or all people, ever since. Dylan wrote anthems everybody knew in the way that everybody knew each new song by The Beatles. They all sang of some kind of “revolution.” But whatever “movement” there was in the 60s, fueled by music, is very fractured now, with popular music seeming to be mostly about only materialism and romance.
Yes, and when I went off to college in 1967, you could not walk from one end to the other of my college dorm without hearing “Sgt. Pepper’s” — it was a universal experience; everybody had it and knew it by heart. Dylan has admitted that he mistakenly set himself up to be a generation’s spokesman with those songs. He was just a guy with a guitar, even when singing at the historic March on Washington. But I don’t think there ever was a chance of a revolution in America, like there was in France or Russia — there, the social structure was so rigid and contemptuous that the only thing to do was to butcher the elites. In England and here there was a certain amount of compromise. But I am sure if you asked, say, the Koch brothers about, say, FDR, they’d call him a “socialist.” But FDR actually saved capitalism when it was wobbling by putting in a social safety net. I’m now old enough for Medicare and I like it. There’s only a small fraction of people who object to it — until they need it, that is. But I also have a peculiar and possibly naive faith that in our time, my time, even, and that’s not that long left, there will be musically somebody who gathers up all these snapped threads and has a remarkable impact.