On Highway 61 explores the historical context of the significant social dissent that was central to the cultural genesis of the sixties. The book is going to search for the deeper roots of American cultural and musical evolution for the past 150 years by studying what the Western European culture learned from African American culture in a historical progression that reaches from the minstrel era to Bob Dylan.
The book begins with America’s first great social critic, Henry David Thoreau, and his fundamental source of social philosophy:his profound commitment to freedom, to abolitionism and to African-American culture. Continuing with Mark Twain, through whom we can observe the rise of minstrelsy, which he embraced, and his subversive satirical masterpiece Huckleberry Finn. While familiar, the book places them into a newly articulated historical reference that shines new light and reveals a progression that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.
As the first post-Civil War generation of black Americans came of age, they introduced into the national culture a trio of musical formsragtime, blues, and jazz that would, with their derivations, dominate popular music to this day. Ragtime introduced syncopation and become the cutting edge of the modern 20th century with popular dances. The blues would combine with syncopation and improvisation and create jazz. Maturing at the hands of Louis Armstrong, it would soon attract a cluster of young white musicians who came to be known as the Austin High Gang, who fell in love with black music and were inspired to play it themselves. In the process, they developed a liberating respect for the diversity of their city and country, which they did not see as exotic, but rather as art. It was not long before these young white rebels were the masters of American pop music big band Swing.
As Bop succeeded Swing, and Rhythm and Blues followed, each had white followers like the Beat writers and the first young rock and rollers. Even popular white genres like the country music of Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family reflected significant black influence. In fact, the theoretical separation of American music by race is not accurate. This biracial fusion achieved an apotheosis in the early work of Bob Dylan, born and raised at the northern end of the same Mississippi River and Highway 61 that had been the birthplace of much of the black music he would study.
As the book reveals, the connection that began with Thoreau and continued for over 100 years was a cultural evolution where, at first individuals, and then larger portions of society, absorbed the culture of those at the absolute bottom of the power structure, the slaves and their descendants, and realized that they themselves were not free.
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About the Author
Dennis McNally received his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1977 for a biography of Jack Kerouac which was published by Random House in 1979 under the title Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. He 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 with Broadway Books, a division of Random House. It made the New York Times best seller list.
Table of Contents
I Race and the Freedom Principle in Nineteenth-Century America
1 America and Henry Thoreau 7
2 A Child of the River and the South 17
3 Antebellum Black Music and White Minstrelsy 25
4 Mark Twain Grows 39
5 Huckleberry Finn 55
6 Black Minstrelsy and the Rise of Ragtime 73
II African American Music and the White Response
7 Race in America from the 1890s to the 1920s 89
8 The Primal Blues, Their First Popularizer, Their First Star 103
9 The Birth of Jazz, in New Orleans and New York City 121
10 Louis 139
11 The Blues Women 153
12 White People and Jazz and Its Flowering in New York 163
13 The Flood, and the Blues That Followed 185
14 Swing 197
15 Robert Johnson 209
16 "Spirituals to Swing" and After 221
17 Bop and the Music of the '40s 237
18 Muddy Waters and Louis Jordan Change the Blues 249
19 Folk Roots and '50s Rock 267
20 The Beats and Folk Emerge and Jazz Ascends 281
21 The Blues Revival 297
III The Man Who Brought It All Back Home
22 Bob Zimmerman Becomes Bob Dylan 315
23 Dylan in New York 339
24 The Movement and Changes 357
25 An Existential Troubadour 381
26 Home Again to Rock 'n' Roll 403