The musicians and writers whose art presaged and influenced The Sixties.
Review by Michael Goldberg.
On Highway 61 – Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, Dennis McNally, Counterpoint Press (471 pages)
Let me start at the end and tell you that the final section of On Highway 61, some 120 pages, provides the best portrait of Bob Dylan and his creativity, what nurtured it, and how it evolved, that I’ve read to date.
Additionally, author Dennis McNally focuses on how Dylan’s worldview – and the songs he wrote and/or sung – can be characterized as part of the ongoing search for freedom in all it’s manifestations, physical, spiritual and cultural. And more. Dylan was at least as influenced by the music made by African Americans, as he was by white country and folk musicians. And this is important, as it is simply one of many examples in this terrific book that make the case that African Americans are primarily responsible for what is truly great in American music.
But there are other reasons it’s appropriate to start with Dylan. Like some of that artist’s surrealist (or perhaps hyper-real) songs of 1965 – “Desolation Row,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” — McNally has populated his book with an incredible array of iconic figures — including Henry David Thoreau, Miles Davis, Mark Twain, Bessie Smith and Jack Kerouac – who, like Dylan, have allowed those who have paid attention to their art to experience, as McNally puts it, “a widening of vision, a softening of the heart, and an increase in tolerance.”
No Anita Ekberg (“to make the country grow”)) and no Shakespeare (“with his pointed shoes and his bells”), but what the hell. As artfully as Dylan in his songs, McNally has made his superhuman crew fit seamlessly into this treatise on cultural freedom. In fact, those artists and their work is the story of cultural freedom.
And what is cultural freedom?
Leave it to Mr. Dylan, who McNally quotes from a 1987 US magazine interview, to give us a clue.
“When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was gonna be my boss,” Dylan said. “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Art that makes you feel like busting out of jail. That would be one definition.
Or, as Dylan sang it, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
Yeah, cultural freedom.
But there’s more to it. The way McNally tells the story, the jazz cats and blues musicians, rock ‘n’ rollers and writers and minstrel show actors/ singers were part of a kind of long term cultural, social and political evolution that certainly contributed to the civil rights movement, but has allowed many of us to see behind the materialism that is the engine that runs what French theorist Guy Debord, a founding member of the Situationist International, called, The Society of the Spectacle.”
As a kid, I had a similar reaction hearing Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in 1965 as Dylan had to hearing Elvis. Dylan’s voice broke every rule, and after I heard it I knew that much of what I’d been told was wrong ’cause if a voice like that, all sneer and sarcasm and ragged and strange could be on Top 40 radio anything was possible. And all the rules they taught me didn’t mean shit. Anything was possible and I was gonna go for it and nothing would constrain me. And yeah, that’s another example.
The music and writing and art and film that can change who we are, and how we act.
While a desire to write a history of cultural freedom in the U.S. was one of McNally’s stated motivations – the intellectual argument for this book – I think that something else the writer mentions may be as germane. McNally was born in 1951, and he came of age in the Sixties, right as the counter-culture was in full bloom. He ended up working for the Grateful Dead for many years, and eventually wrote their authorized biography (A Long Strange Trip). If anyone was at a kind of counter-cultural ground zero, it was McNally.
In his introduction, McNally writes that one of his motivations for writing this book was to dig into the roots of what caused the “cultural shifts of the 1960s.”
So this book is, on one level, McNally’s search to discover where he came from – the forces that led to a moment in time – ‘the Sixties’ – in which everything was briefly very very different. I too came of age in the Sixties, and this book helped me understand the foundation of the culture that had such an impact on who I am.
The book is a joy to read. McNally is smart and knowledgeable and hip. While he did incredible research (11 years worth) that grounds his story in specifics, it is clear that he has been listening to much of the music he references for decades.
Whether he’s writing about John Coltrane or Robert Johnson or Bob Dylan, McNally conveys a familiarity and understanding that can only come from living with the music, and in fact he’s been listening to jazz, blues, folk and other musics since purchasing in 1965, at age 14, the Thelonious Monk Quartet’s Thelonious In Action.
McNally writes about how whites were influenced by African American culture, and vice-versa, and how that ultimately resulted in a cultural freedom that led to, and is epitomized in, the “revolutionary” recordings made by Dylan in the early-to-late-Sixties.
The 300 pages that come before the section on Bob Dylan are fascinating, and while I already knew quite a bit about many of the musicians and writers that populate McNally’s book, his focus on how they were part of the cultural freedom story brought a freshness to their stories, along with McNally’s distinctive and valuable perspective.
“In the end, this book is the deepest social and musical background of rock ’n’ roll,” McNally told S. F. Chronicle reporter Sam Whiting.
McNally went on to say: “What’s new about this book is that it puts everything into a context that nobody has done before. The whole progression from Thoreau to Dylan, nobody’s ever looked at that broad a span and said, ‘Wow, this stuff all connects.’”
The writer uses Highway 61, the road that runs 1400 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana up to Wyoming, Minnesota, as a touchstone that connects much of what is discussed in the book. And it was Dylan who brought that to McNally’s attention.
“There’s a three-paragraph passage in Chronicles [Dylan’s memoir] in which he (Dylan) talks about Highway 61 and about how it connects in with the south and listening to the radio, and he got all that by listening to No Name Jive, the radio show from Gatemouth Page from Little Rock late at night when you can get a radio station 1000 miles away (Dylan lived in Minnesota) and listening to this black music. As soon as I read that, I went, I don’t need to talk to Dylan. He can’t possibly improve on this. This is his memoir. This is what he gave great deep through to, and there are a dozen other places where he talks about hearing Robert Johnson for the first time, the story of which was just a perfect story of things coming together.
Although one could initially get the idea from the book’s cover – a Library of Congress photo taken during the Great Depression of two African American men – that this is a dry history book, it certainly isn’t.
Rather, for me the book is like a magician’s magic chest from which McNally keeps revealing extraordinary stories of the great men and women who contributed to the best aspects of our culture. At times the book is a page-turner, and is dense with spot-on details that show the work of writers Thoreau, Twain and Kerouac, and numerous American musicians in a way that I haven’t seen before.
From debunking the story of Robert Johnson meeting Satan at the “crossroads,” to making a case for gospel and blues being key roots of country music, McNally tells a different (and I believe much more accurate) version of the American music story.
McNally on Hank Williams:
“A sickly child who began boozing at the age of twelve, [Hank Williams] took up as a teen with a black street musician named Tee Top Payne, and the music that he’d make for the rest of his life would be nothing more than a white man’s pedal steel guitar-laced version of the blues and the evangelical religious music that was the common heritage of black and white alike.”
And this mindblower: “… Though it was identified exclusively with white country music, the Opry’s cast included DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player. Somewhat later, Opry musicians Chet Atkins and Merle Travis would come to fame playing the Kentucky thumb style of guitar created by a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz, who would also give the founder of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, his first paid gig as part of a band that included Bill’s brother Charlie. Schultz’s blues music would have an enduring influence on Bill Monroe. Ernest Tubb, whose “Walking the Floor Over You” brought honky-tonk music and the electric guitar to the Opry, had grown up listening to Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. The lines were always thinner than first understood.”
And the section on minstrelsy, a subject I had not previously read about, was for sure enlightening.
Ultimately, all that McNally writes about during the first 300+ pages of the book including the ideas of Thoreau and Twain, the writing style of the Beats including Kerouac and Ginsberg, become the raw materials from which Bob Dylan creates his own art.
I could spend thousands of words writing about those first 300 pages, but I’m not going to do that. Let me say though that if you are a student of American music, you will want to read this book, and you will find all of it worth your time.
And now I’m going to say a bit more about Dylan.
As a lead up to the Dylan section of the book, McNally writes:
“The Blues revival brings us to the early 1960s, as an entire generation’s interest in cultural freedom quickened and grew. The baby boomers had been born into an extraordinary stasis… In short, when Americans watched such television shows as, say, Father Knows Best, they believed they were watching reality – that America had no black people, that all sins were minor and grist for laughter, that abuse or incest or alcoholism was rare and didn’t require being mentioned, that this was the best of all possible worlds – so long as one did not make significant waves.
“All these strands of music [jazz, blues, gospel, folk, etc.] reveal that this is not so,” McNally continues. “And these cultural strands were all going to combine in the stirrings and dreams of freedom of a good part of an entire generation, and in the art of one genius composer. All of it would challenge that stasis in remarkable ways.”
That “genius composer” is, of course, Bob Dylan.
McNally points out that Dylan was as much influenced by African American music as he was by folk music. As a teenager, Dylan was a fan of the rock ‘n’ roll of both Little Richard and Buddy Holly. From listening to DJ Frank “Gatemouth” Page’s No More Jive show out of Shreveport Louisiana Dylan was also exposed to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam and many others.
A month before Dylan recorded his debut album in 1961, record producer John Hammond gave him an advance pressing of Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues and Dylan later wrote:
“From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the heard of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces… fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic.
McNally writes: “What all this points to is that the young man who recorded eighteen songs on November 20 and 22 in two three-hour sessions, thirteen of which became the album, Bob Dylan was not the relatively limited Woody Guthrie acolyte-folkie that he has typically been characterized as. At minimum, he was at least as influenced by black music as white. The concept of freedom that had traveled through black music since the 1740s was as central to what he was doing as it was to Robert Johnson before him – or any member of the Austin High Gang.
“It was no average folkie who would end his debut album with [Blind Lemon Jefferson’s] ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ and have three of those thirteen songs be about death (‘In My Time Of Dyin’,’ ‘Fixin To Die’). And what his searing harp riffs and utterly serious voice did to Eric Von Schmidt’s ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ (which is to say that Dylan got it from Von Schmidt, who’d heard it performed by Blind Boy Fuller) was not the work of a twenty-year-old youngster but of someone who’d integrated something far older, far deeper into his skinny boy’s body and life.”
Later McNally notes that upon his return from Europe Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo went to an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art titled “The Art of Assemblage,” an exhibit that started with the 1913/1914 cubist collages of Picasso, Braque and Gris and continued with works by Max Ernst, George Grosz, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and others.
Dylan would, of course, go on to utilize a kind of collage technique in his songwriting of the mid-to-late Sixties and beyond. As he told John Cohen and Happy Traum in June and July, 1968, when they interviewed him for Sing Out!:
“It’s like this painter who lives around here — he paints the area in a radius of twenty miles, he paints bright strong pictures. He might take a barn from twenty miles away, and hook it up with a brook right next door, then with a car ten miles away, and with the sky on some certain day, and the light on the trees from another certain day. A person passing by will be painted alongside someone ten miles away. And in the end he’ll have this composite picture of something which you can’t say exists in his mind. It’s not that he started off willfully painting this picture from all his experience … That’s more or less what I do.”
But I’m starting to stray from McNally’s book, and so I think it’s time to wrap up this review by telling you that if you read one ‘music’ book this year, On Highway 61 should be that book. It’s a wonderful book, and it will blow your mind, oh yeah, of that I am certain.