Dennis McNally Presents American Music Portrait on ‘Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom’ (INTERVIEW)

It might be correct, with all due respect, to call author/historian Dennis McNally the Zelig of contemporary culture, except that he doesn’t just appear in pivotal situations of paradigm shift to immerse himself in his surroundings to merely observe. Instead he recounts what he sees with a discerning eye from a perspective all his own.

And his chosen topics are nothing if not profound in their ultimate effects as catalysts of American and global culture. In both Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation & America (1979) and A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (2003), McNally probes into the repercussions of his subjects actions in such a way he elicits an almost visceral response in the reader.

The effects of his latest book, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom are hardly different. Far from the academic tome its subtitle implies, it is a conversational, almost breezy discourse on the evolution of music in America and its intrinsic ties to personal and collective freedom embodied in this country’s race relations. McNally’s able to illuminate the ties that bind those movements in such a way he illuminates them without unraveling them and, in so doing, depicts how the various machinations actually function not just in principle but in action.

And the author has constructed the book in such a way, there’s a kind of subliminal suspense throughout: “Hey what’s going to happen next as music evolves, furthers a sense of freedom in (some of) us and, in turn, culture, at least in part, enlightens itself?” McNally’s dialogue with Doug Collette has a similar rhythm and tone, like a good musical improvisation, establishing its theme(s) and then embroidering upon them.


Quite apart from it’s fascinating subject matter, reading Highway 61 helped me rediscover the pleasure of reading, so I must thank you for that!

You’re welcome, Kerouac and the Grateful Dead were so polarizing as subject matter, and my reviews were often as much about subject matter as the book itself. If they hated Kerouac, they hated me and I had to shrug and say “What can ya do?”

It comes with the territory! (Laughs)

Right! But with this one, clearly there is no single focus, so the reviews have been by and large overwhelmingly positive and thoughtful and insightful.

Well, that’s as it should be. You just gave a pretty accurate summation of the book itself. Except that the title suggested this was going to be a very academic work

The subtitle came from my editor…

That’s good to know!…One sensation that hit me right away, but quickly dissipated as I moved through the book, perhaps because of current events at the time, was that what you were describing was this seeming endless, vicious cycle of cultural and class clash, when it was not outright civil war, in America. Am I over interpreting?

Not at all—that’s one element of the book similar to what’s happening in Ferguson, MO where a white minority is dominating a black majority and being incredibly insensitive and not listening. In the book, at the beginning, you’ve got a scattering of individuals then a growing number of white people –but a minority—who listen to black voices in various ways, whether it’s simply the issue of slavery in the case of Thoreau or literally listening in the case of (Mark) Twain and the Jubilee Singers or whether it’s people dancing to ragtime in the early 1900’s or jazz.

It’s a story of people getting more civilized and developing a sense of a more complex world by this listening experience. As you say though, there’s always this reverse cycle and the culture wars that we’re going through now between the left and the right is simply ongoing: it’s never stopped from the Sixties. The Sixties posed the most profound challenge to traditional American values: the notion it’s the greatest country on the planet, that we’re without flaw, that we’re a Christian country—vaguely at least- that nature’s there to be used and that freedom means the freedom to make as much money as humanly possible. And that also sexual roles are supposed to be basically Victorian.

My argument in Highway 61 is that there’s always been an alternative to that in frequently smaller numbers perhaps…sometimes it’s just one person, one giant mind that says “I don’t think so!” That’s why the book’s dedicated to him (Thoreau) even though, while it’s frequently called ‘the bohemian tradition,” that’s hard to connect with him because he never had a drink in his life and we know of no sexual experience: he was a good Victorian in that way. But in other ways he was the most outrageous mind in the history of America.

That cycle seems more and more life-affirming as I went on through the book and when you mentioned the decade of the Sixties. I remember seeing some of the CNN series on that decade and watching the footage of the racial riots of the time and the war in Vietnam (which I remember so vividly from the time); it reminded me how violent were those times in terms of all the different clashes going on, culture-wise and otherwise, certainly not so violent as the Civil War itself, but not altogether different from one era to another.

It all connects

Speaking of giant minds, I found myself somewhat (and oddly) surprised that Bob Dylan was ultimately the focal point of this book. Was that idea the germination of the book or did that concept evolve as you wrote it? That’s a somewhat roundabout way of asking: how you were inspired to write this book to begin with?

I started it with a question: “What caused the Sixties?” There were obvious things in that decade that you can point to: LSD, the birth control pill, and the war in Vietnam. I suppose in the end though the simple answer to that is rock and roll. Rock and roll, and to describe what this book is in the simplest way is the very deepest roots of rock and roll and the black/white relationship going all the way back to the 1840’s. That sums it up and as far as Dylan goes, while I asked the question, I didn’t have an answer when I asked it, though I may have intuitively know the answer was rock and roll and the guy who made rock and roll intellectually respectable was Dylan and so he was going to get a lot of attention. As I came to see what my book was about, it occurred to me again that one of the things nobody had given any significant attention to—and I read all the available biographies of Dylan—was that his musical roots were at least as black as white.

mcnally10Yeah, the books and their authors talk about it, but they don’t seem to want to see what first sparked him and that genius of his.

So Hank Williams was his (Dylan’s) very first God, but after that it’s Little Richard and after that, who turns him on to folk music? It’s Leadbelly and Odetta. Look at the first album and the critical songs are black songs. So I thought I had something to say here and that’s good, but aside from that there were two other prime connectors, to the blues and black music in general and the (Mississippi) River. All that music, ragtime, blues and jazz all come from the river, they were created within one hundred miles, shall we say, of the river. Dylan himself connected to that by being at one end of that river, especially if you think of the river as a place in and of itself. He also connected because he listened to a radio show and that was very important to him. He nursed the radio dial in high school to hear a show called “No Name Jive” and a man named Gatemouth Page, a white guy, who played the very best black music extant in 1957; you can think about what that means: current hits from Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry and Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed—you name it.

That was just one of the things that made him ‘Bob Dylan” and not little Bobby Zimmerman. And the other thing was—and people forget this because he left it—he was deeply committed to the Civil Rights movement for a long time. His great love, Suze Rotolo, worked at CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and she wrote her own memoir in which she talks about how (her relationship with Dylan) ended in part because she did not want to get swallowed up by his life…very reasonable given his life and his personality which is not the easiest. But what she doesn’t acknowledge -and unfortunately she’s passed but I’d love to ask her if she realized- how profoundly she affected him?

He met her, this young woman working for CORE something like seven weeks after the Freedom Rides.

You’ve got to to wonder how much that timing and that contact not that he probably ever doubted it but he is human and how much did meeting her validate those feelings about race in America that he was dealing with in music and otherwise?

I doubt he ever thought about it much consciously–I don’t get the sense that’s the way his brain works—it just comes out in the writing. It’s not a coincidence that when he starts writing seriously, that is late 1961 and early 1962, he’d written “Song to Woody,” but after that it’s rights issues. And the thing is, even after he stops being part of the movement or thinking of himself as part of the movement, what he’s writing about is freedom, personal freedom: “Gates of Eden” is about personal freedom, “Desolation Row” is about personal freedom and that didn’t change; but the movement stuff, in the wake of John F Kennedy’s assassination, the idea of collective effort—he couldn’t relate to it anymore.

I have long and often thought of Dylan’s career from 1965 on as a search for identity and understanding himself better, and I sometimes wonder if he did himself a disservice by so blithely distancing himself from the civil rights movement and the folk movement. But it was probably inevitable when you look at the path of his career from day one up through today where he’s still doing that.

Well, he found his identity by living on the road and that is his identity. He said it at the beginning “I’m a song and dance man y’know?” (laughs) He did what he had to do including the motorcycle accident which allowed him to step off the treadmill Grossman had him on. It’s pretty clear, thought nobody says it, that the accident wasn’t that serious, but it allowed him the chance to a lot of things including clean up his life, just slow down and move on at a healthier pace.

One of the first points that leapt out at me from this section of your book was how Albert Grossman’s personality for a short period of time really complemented Dylan’s own growing paranoia and fear about what celebrity would do to him. I never really knew much about Grossman to made that kind of connection; he was one of those people who came in and out of Dylan’s life and served their purpose.

Right and there’s Dylan signing his contract without reading it–always as bad idea- and it was years later, like 1969, when a secretary at the music publisher broke it to Dylan: ‘he’s getting fifty percent of that (music publishing)’…’Fifty percent!?!’’…And that’s when he started hiring his own lawyers. He was badly served by Grossman’s paranoia.

I wanted to ask about the evolution of music from its roots and how often it happens that, although it will retain its authenticity in fundamental form, it will always be coopted for pure entertainment.

That’s showbiz! (laughs) That’s it though the intrinsic nature of show business is the lowest common denominator, the urge for financial profits above all, and this ongoing search for the simplest most easily replicable elements that will appeal to an audience however briefly and make money for the person trying to do the figuring out of the element. The Classic example of that is the various Svengalis who created the ‘boy bands,’ NSYNC and so forth.

Just to get back to the main topic of our discussion, more or less, Bob Dylan seems to have accepted his identity as a touring musician right not just readily but with great relish.

The Endless Tour!..Right…Someone asked me if I had an “Aha!” moment in my research and I stopped and thought about it, since no one had ever asked me…I did as a matter of fact in that I had at one point wanted to interview Dylan and I have worked with him and his people and I certainly put in my request. And then I read (Dylan’s) Chronicles Volume 1 (published2004)) and thought “This answers all my questions!)

That’s a remarkable book.

It is and I know it’s not all literally true, but I do not doubt that his reaction Highway 61 Revisited or his reaction to Robert Johnson. By the Eighties, he’d gotten himself into a trough emotionally and creatively, which is unfortunately around the time he toured with the Dead, but that’s the luck of the draw.

Do you think that (collaboration) was a turning point though? Because I do remember reading of Jerry Garcia himself talking about prepping to go on the road with Dylan and saying “Let’s play this—this is how it goes…” and Dylan had no recognition of ‘how it went” and Jerry showed him. I wonder if that planted the seed for the epiphany Dylan talks about where he realized he was the road warrior he’s come to be.

Well, he had great respect for Garcia and he and the Dead gave him the affirmation of his work that he took to heart. There’s a moment Dylan talks about in Germany, I think, where something just hit him.

That’s the epiphany I was referring to where in a moment on stage he was hit with an “AHA!” moment—which understates the profundity of what we’re talking bout but still makes the point

The Grateful Dead experience was an element in that process. And I remember sitting backstage on that tour reading a book of Dylan’s lyrics with Garcia and it was just such a joy to sample that stuff. That’s one of the points I wanted to get across in the book and why, I might add, is why I felt ok in ending it where I did. The goal had been met and while there was a lot more great music on and on and on, from “Tangled Up in Blue” to “Blind Willie McTell,” (an outtake from Infidels, 1983) I didn’t feel the need to touch on it all because the book isn’t just a profile of Dylan. I wanted to touch on what connected to this pattern I was looking at which stopped nicely with the writing of Highway 61 Revisited.

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