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 While familiar, the book places them into a newly articulated historical reference that shines new light and reveals a progression that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.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 forms—ragtime, 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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America and Henry Thoreau
As you land at Boston's Logan Airport, it's possible — with a window seat, a forgiving angle, and some imagination — to visualize nothing but virgin forest rolling away west from the Atlantic, to picture it as it was when the first settlers arrived in 1620. It really was a new world to them — the New World, Nova Terra. Due in considerable part to the massive die-off of Native Americans thanks to European diseases like smallpox, the land seemed endlessly open and the essence of freedom, the pastoral root of what came to be called the American Dream. "The pastoral ideal," wrote Leo Marx, "has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery."
But the Puritans saw the land not as an Edenic vision of gardens but as a howling wilderness that needed taming. The notion that nature was something made for man to dominate was the first of four major elements of the American creed that the nation's first great social critic, Henry David Thoreau, would challenge. (The other three shibboleths were that America was the noble exception to all nations in its moral perfection, that Christianity was the only possible American religion, and that the Protestant work ethic and its implied worship of materialism were desirable and essential elements of any life.)
The worldview the Puritans brought to the new land was dramatically different from the Native American nature worship that preceded their arrival. The Hebraic shift to monotheism placed God outside and superior to nature. Their further belief that mankind was made in God's image divided people from all the other animals, from life itself, and marked a starting point for history and the origins of modern consciousness. By the time of Christianity, which grafted Greek rationality and the notion of the soul onto the Yahwist tradition, the process was complete. Civilization was understood to be a purely human-oriented construct in a dualistic world where God was sacred and humans profane. Nature was to be used.
Initially, the Puritans opposed luxury, materialism, and individualism with a religion the scholar David Shi suggested most closely resembled "late medieval Catholicism," which located one's ethical life above commerce. This would not last. The equation at the root of the Protestant ethic, wherein hard work and frugality lead to prosperity, would soon flower into Cotton Mather's notion that God's favor could be shown in riches. By the eighteenth century, New England was ruled by a merchant aristocracy that was far more influenced by the individualism of John Locke than by Christianity.
Along with individualist capitalism, the settlers brought with them a second social institution that would ensure that America was not Eden: slavery. It's critical to understand that slavery wasn't a tangential aberration to the democratic core of American development. It was essential to European expansion into the Western Hemisphere via the sugar trade, and it involved all the maritime nations of Europe and all the societies of West Africa.
U.S. slavery was surely among the most absolute in human history, wherein the enslaved had almost no past, and little visible future. As well, their value to their masters grew with every baby. By the 1790s, the other industry in the American South was that of breeding slaves.
The contemporary justification for slavery was that the Africans were heathens. In fact, the ancient Western justification for slavery went back to original sin, punishment, and the need to live "by the sweat of your brow" — which meant that any subgroup that you could dominate should do the heavy lifting. The language of the Enlightenment and of liberty undermined these rationalizations. By 1776, one in five inhabitants of the new United States was a slave, and by the time the English surrendered at Yorktown, a quarter of the Continental Army was black. The roots of the coming civil war lay in the American Revolution, with the northern states committing to freedom. Vermont banned slavery in 1777 by constitutional mandate, Massachusetts by judicial decision in the early 1780s, New Hampshire soon after. Contrarily, the people of South Carolina preferred to risk losing the war rather than empower slaves by using them as troops against the British.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the romantic impulse to ennoble labor and see how slavery degraded it began to generate a complicated response that weakened pro-slavery thinking but, out of fear of competition, stimulated working-class racism. At the same time, sociotechnological creations like the Erie Canal, the steam engine, and railroads jumpstarted economic development, and the eighteenth-century culture of "land, family, and community" was succeeded, wrote one historian, by one based on "reckless speculation, crass opportunism, and shameless social climbing."
Economic opportunity and the accretion of wealth became the baseline national creed, and this attitude found its keynote in the enshrinement of Ben Franklin as the great exemplar. This was not entirely fair. Though he embodied the bourgeois values of practicality, creativity, and good sense, he was cosmopolitan and never a moneygrubber. Still, the thrifty materialism and sociable networking he so brilliantly practiced as a young man were useful models for the upwardly mobile of the nineteenth century.
Ben was, as the historian Gordon Woods put it, the first American. In the nineteenth century, America had become a place to make money, and Ben's advice could help with that. And Thoreau? Thoreau would become one of the very first Other Americans, who saw America for what it had become, and would remain — and said no, beginning a long tradition of dissent.
BORN IN 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, the iconic cradle of the American Revolution, Thoreau grew up watching the nineteenth-century development of the great American money machine, most directly in 1839 when he and his brother traveled by canoe on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Their voyage brought them to the fulcrum of American economic development, the erstwhile utopia of Lowell, Massachusetts, which by 1839 had already come to more closely resemble William Blake's vision of dark satanic mills.
Thoreau had graduated from Harvard two years before, where he had become part of an intellectual revolution that can simplistically be described as the romantic revolt against the cold, empirical rationality of John Locke and Adam Smith, the intellectual framework that had helped generate the industrial era. In New England, Locke's thinking also created cerebral Unitarianism, sweeping away traditional Calvinist Christianity.
The rational nature of Unitarianism struck some as insufficiently fulfilling. In an old and pointed joke, a Unitarian comes to a fork in the road. One way goes to heaven, and one goes to a discussion about heaven; he takes the discussion. Just a few years after the development of Unitarianism, a significant portion of its intellectual leadership would withdraw and espouse beliefs more reflective of German idealism and Goethean romanticism, something focused on the individual, something a little more dramatically spiritual.
Led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Unitarian brain trust generated the creed of transcendentalism and located the divine in Nature. They believed, wrote Emerson, "in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power ... in inspiration, and in ecstasy." Conveniently enough, Emerson moved to Concord in this time, and Thoreau had a master with whom to study.
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau declared his own personal independence and went to live in a cabin he'd built on Emerson's land at Walden Pond, about two miles south of Concord. During the two years he lived there and the seven years afterward it took him to write and publish Walden, he would develop an analysis of American society and of nineteenth-century materialism that would constitute the fundamental grammar of an alternative worldview, a practical philosophy of living that focused on voluntary poverty and an intimate connection to nature.
Walden was, as the critic Stanley Cavell has written, a scripture, a call for heroic spiritual regeneration and a return to the original American ideals. It was so radical that much of its central message would not be truly recognized until the 1960s, when the ideas of the simple life and the environmentalist vision of humans as part of, not owners of, the natural world became a great deal more appreciated.
Long before that, though, his resistance to the American norm connected him with a parallel dissenting tradition, one that, over the next one hundred years, would engage many more Americans than the philosophy of antimaterialism and the natural world. The most glaringly visible flaw in the American culture was slavery and the moral debt owed the kidnapped African American slaves. Henry located the grammar of dissent not only in antimaterialism and in the environmental ethos, which in Walden he placed in an intellectual wrapper called the pastoral, but also in an overt resistance to slavery.
In the fall of 1837, just as Thoreau returned from college, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, the abolitionist daughters of a slave-owning family from South Carolina, came to Concord to speak. Six weeks later, on October 18, sixty-one local women gathered to form the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. Henry's mother, Cynthia Thoreau, and her daughters, Sophia and Helen, her boarders, Mrs. Joseph Ward and daughter Prudence, and Lidian (Mrs. Ralph) Emerson were among them. Concord would soon be the single most active such society in Massachusetts, which was by far the most active abolitionist state in the Union. The center of the Concord society's activities was the Thoreau dinner table.
Thoreau's fundamental orientations in life were individual and not social, philosophical and not political. Each of the occasions he actively devoted himself to opposing slavery came as an interruption to his normal routine, which in itself constituted a form of social criticism. But the night in late July 1846 that he spent in the Concord town lockup due to his refusal to pay a poll tax to a government engaged in slavery and an imperialist (and slavery-spreading) war against Mexico is an essential moment in American history, not least because it didn't end when town constable Sam Staples got around to letting him out in the morning. That night's effects will never end.
When asked about the incident, Thoreau drafted a lecture, and the lecture became an essay that is one of the fundamental moral documents of American history. His "Resistance to Civil Government" was published in 1849 and posthumously became "Civil Disobedience," and it would be the inspiration to freedom-seekers from India to Alabama. So long as the powerless strive for freedom, Thoreau's incarceration will speak to them.
It would have been even more virtuous for Thoreau to seek to free those slaves out of simple opposition to injustice rather than be first concerned with his own guilt or innocence in the support of slavery. His journal entry of 1845, that "The degredation [sic] & suffering of the black man will not have been in vain if they contribute thus indirectly to give a loftier tone to the religion and politics of this country," is patronizing and insensitive to human suffering.
He would grow, and the result of his moral evolution was that slavery, the fate of the African American population of America, would be the primary source of his entire theory of the sociopolitical relations among citizens. That imprisoned population, even after emancipation, would be a major source of knowledge and inspiration to Americans resisting the mainstream of American thought for the next century and more.
An individual to the end, Thoreau never joined an abolitionist organization, so his greatest contribution to the effort was the writing of "Civil Disobedience." In the essay he locates morality not in society but in a higher law: "There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly." Many have interpreted this as a philosophical anarchism — certainly Emma Goldman later thought so. But what Thoreau really wanted was a country so moral that he could willingly conform to it. "I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject."
It is his skepticism about voting — "a sort of gaming" — and dismissal of majority rule as mere expedience that disturbs so many. Yet his alternative is ethical, if radical: "Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary ... Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine." The individual dissolves his relationship to the Union, to the State, by refusing to pay tax. As the ethical issues grew ever more pressing and closer to violence, Thoreau would follow suit.
In 1850 Henry Clay and Daniel Webster brokered a final compromise in a series, which in return for a free California included a Fugitive Slave Act that required all citizens to assist slave catchers. Antislavery Northerners were apoplectic. On May 24, 1854, a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston. Three platoons of marines and an artillery regiment, some fifteen thousand soldiers, ensured that despite Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the abolitionist Vigilance Committee's best efforts, he would be returned to the South. Higginson, the Unitarian minister in Worcester, spoke for all abolitionists when he growled, "In spite of your free Soil votes, your Uncle Tom's Cabin, and your New York Tribunes, here is the simple fact: the South beats us more and more easily every time." The alliance of Northern manufacturers and slaveholders, the fact that most of the nation's presidents had been from the South, and that slavery was part of the Constitution combined to suggest that slavery was impregnable.
Thoreau grew ever more radical. In Framingham on July 4, 1854, he gave his speech "Slavery in Massachusetts." The leading abolitionist and editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, was there and set fire to copies of the decision returning Burns to slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Constitution. Sojourner Truth and Wendell Phillips also spoke. Thoreau not only called for Massachusetts to leave the union of the states but also remarked, "My thoughts are murder to the state." The Fugitive Slave Law's "natural habitat is in the dirt," and must be trampled there, along with "Webster, its maker." "The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free."
He went further still. The abolitionist activist John Brown visited Concord to raise funds for his efforts in Kansas in March 1857, and Franklin Sanborn, a Concord man then boarding with the Thoreaus, brought him by. Thoreau and Brown would spend an evening in deep discussion. On October 16, 1859, Brown and eighteen followers, five of them black, all of them young, captured the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), killing one marine and four local residents, including a black freeman.
Having done so, wrote the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, Brown "proceeded to violate every military principle in the book. He cut himself off from his base of supplies, failed to keep open his only avenues of retreat, dispersed his small force, and bottled the bulk of them up in a trap where defeat was inevitable." At his trial, he gave a speech that claimed, "I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make an insurrection." A few years later Emerson would compare Brown's trial speech with the Gettysburg Address.
Thoreau, who had waited for a sign on how to confront slavery, cared nothing for the dubiousness of the tactics nor for Brown's claims of innocence. For Thoreau it was time for a higher law, one that justified even violence if slavery was ever to end, if the cause of freedom was to be honored. Though Thoreau had not been one of the so-called Secret Six (Sanborn, Higginson, and Theodore Parker, among others) who had raised money for Brown, including $5 from Cynthia and Sophia Thoreau just five days before Harpers Ferry, he would become one of Brown's greatest public defenders in the aftermath of the raid.
He began writing on October 19 and was consumed, keeping pencil and paper under his pillow to catch stray ideas. Once finished, he announced that he would speak. Emerson advised against it, and Henry replied, "I did not send to you for advice, but to announce that I am to speak." It was not a time for compromise.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "On Highway 61"
Copyright © 2014 Dennis McNally.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I: Race and the Freedom Principle in Nineteenth-Century America,
1. America and Henry Thoreau,
2. A Child of the River and the South,
3. Antebellum Black Music and White Minstrelsy,
4. Mark Twain Grows,
5. Huckleberry Finn,
6. Black Minstrelsy and the Rise of Ragtime,
II: African American Music and the White Response,
7. Race in America from the 1890s to the 1920s,
8. The Primal Blues, Their First Popularizer, Their First Star,
9. The Birth of Jazz, in New Orleans and New York City,
11. The Blues Women,
12. White People and Jazz and Its Flowering in New York,
13. The Flood, and the Blues That Followed,
15. Robert Johnson,
16. "Spirituals to Swing" and After,
17. Bop and the Music of the '40s,
18. Muddy Waters and Louis Jordan Change the Blues,
19. Folk Roots and '50s Rock,
20. The Beats and Folk Emerge and Jazz Ascends,
21. The Blues Revival,
III: The Man Who Brought It All Back Home,
22. Bob Zimmerman Becomes Bob Dylan,
23. Dylan in New York,
24. The Movement and Changes,
25. An Existential Troubadour,
26. Home Again to Rock 'n' Roll,