Writer’s Workshop | Dennis McNally On Highway 61
Written By: Chad Berndtson
Writer’s Workshop is our occasional look at writers and authors who hold significant influence in the jam scene – to hear about subjects, form and inspiration and all the things that make us keep reading.
Dennis McNally is best known as the longtime publicist and biographer of the Grateful Dead, and especially for A Long Strange Trip, the 2002 Dead tome that became –and remains –the definitive biographical work on the band.
But McNally is first and foremost a historian and scholar, and for his new book, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, he’s waist-deep in centuries of culture, tracing the influence of African-American music and culture on vast cross-sections of storied Americana, from Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain through ragtime, jazz, blues and – in whose music McNally considers the “boundaries” between racially-associated styles most blurred – Bob Dylan.
It’s dense stuff at 384 pages – as much a work to unpack as to read, true to McNally’s style. We gave the veteran scribe a ring to hear all about the creation of On Highway 61 – out yesterday on Counterpoint Press –as well as why McNally is (probably) done writing about his former Grateful employers.
JAMBASE: What was the seed of the idea here? You’re addressing some pretty well-traveled areas that have a lot of scholarship already, from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan. How did you arrive at this strand and the “cultural freedom” aspect?
DENNIS MCNALLY: I started this book with a question. In my two other books I saw a story that was clear – the one around Kerouac was about a small group of people, and the one about the Dead was about a group of people with a larger group of people surrounding it.
But with this, I literally started with a question: What caused the 1960s? What caused this incredible eruption of questioning the values of the American social contract, with changing attitudes toward nature and sexuality and repression? As I started researching I eventually got back to Thoreau. The America that we know of as America – a corporate, capitalist country, really started in the early 19th century with the National Bank and structural things that generated a really booming economy. The first person to talk about the impact of this new economic order and criticize it publicly in America was really Thoreau.
So as I got seriously into the study of Thoreau a couple of things became clear. A good part of this book, I like to say, was me going back to graduate school, although this time I was running the program. One of the most interesting things about Thoreau to me was the way he looked at nature. At the time, that was so far outside the common American experience, in which people looked at nature at something to be exploited – used to make money. That struck me. It was something that really didn’t get taken seriously by large groups of people for almost 100 years. But Thoreau also challenged things like the Protestant work ethic, this idea that work itself is a virtue.
This was all critical to what he was about, and that sociopolitical understanding of the universe is something you can trace all the way from then til the 1960s. He got that understanding from his abolitionism, and the fact that there was slavery and to him there was a moral imperative to resist it. And what dawned on me was that since that time there were white people learning fundamental ethical lessons for themselves as black people were repressed and oppressed, first in slavery and then in more informal, shall we say, ways.
Once I figured out this connection to the study of black culture – which by and large turned out to be music, I started following the track. I go from Thoreau to Mark Twain, and also on to the Minstrel Era, where you had white, mostly Irish, working class guys addressing black culture in two aspects. One way was satire, and it was quite racist – mostly because the main message of minstrelsy was that someone was lower down the pecking order than the white working class. But what’s interesting is the second aspect: the music was not mocked. The music that came from [that black culture] was honored and respected – these guys actually researched the music and wanted to do a decent job of it. Twain loved Minstrelsy.
So you have that. And then around the turn of the century you have an explosion of black music forms that large numbers of white people started listening to: ragtime, blues and jazz.
JAMBASE: What did that exposure create?
DM: It introduced new ideas and behaviors. Ragtime introduced all kinds of dances, and behind that there are large spans of white people acknowledging that here’s this music and we like it and we’re going to dance to it, and it’s black music. That caused a lot of outcry – I have a quote in the book from The Music Man where they talk about ragtime sending children into these jungle animal instincts, implying black people but also sex, which in 1915 was shocking.
But ragtime, and then jazz, opened up their world, and eventually with jazz, they wanted to play it and get involved in it in a respectful and decent way. Look at what happened in the 20s and 30s as this music that only people of dubious morals played became the national music.
You saw this continue into the 1950s, where you develop sort of a perfectly molded, dual black-and-white music form, which is of course rock ‘n’ roll – the joining of country, a white form, and R&B, a black form. So that’s one of the primary threads of this book: the joining of the cultures, that relationship.
JAMBASE: Talk about your research process. With so much to absorb from all of these eras, how did you ensure you were seeking works on hot jazz or Dylan or any of your other referenced subjects that would support your thread?
DM: I don’t know if I had a lot of process. At one point the book was twice as long as it is now. In the process of research, I used a shotgun approach – if it was interesting I started reading it! I wrote 100 pages on Thoreau originally and that ended up being five pages in the book, because after piling up all the research and with the help of a good editor, the real storyline is somewhat limited in Thoreau – he’s just one part of it.
But I sort of let the story tell it self to me as much as humanly possible. In the end of the editorial process you make selections and control the narrative, but at the beginning and for a very long time I went with what was interesting.
JAMBASE: Was there anything surprising you learned, particularly about deeply-engaged-with research subjects like Dylan?
DM: Someone asked me if I had an “aha” moment where all my suspicious were confirmed. I know people who work with Dylan, and there was a while where I thought about doing an interview with him, and then I read Chronicles Vol. 1. I realized I didn’t need to do the interview because he was answering all the questions I would have raised.
One of the complications I had writing this book was that I wanted to call it “The River and the Road.” Highway 61 runs parallel to the Mississippi River and it’s kind of a representation of the river in some weird way. But titles are like jokes: if they need to be explained, they’re failures. “On Highway 61,” that phrase stood in for what I needed to be hyper-conscious of, in that all of the music that developed
came within 50 miles of this river: ragtime in Missouri, blues in probably the Delta although we don’t really know for sure, and jazz in New Orleans.
When I started thinking about Dylan it was about [Dylan] being the final step in the process. At the other end of it, Dylan was also connected to this river. I was vaguely aware of its importance to him but got much more in-depth. One of the very important early influences in his life was listening to a radio show from Little Rock, Arkansas, hosted by Frank “Gatemouth “ Page – the “Mouth of the South.” He played Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed and Magic Sam – and all that stuff is just not the kind of music that the average person in Hibbing is listening to in 1957.
DM: There was a romance to listening to a radio show that came from a long way away. People listening over the Internet don’t get that. And I may be wrong, I just don’t think that exists anymore – people don’t get the romance of the static. But it wasn’t lost on Dylan. One of his fundamental experiences was doing that, and he wrote about the river in Chronicles. I think he always felt like it was in his blood.
There’s kind of a secret villain in my book – I use that word half jokingly, but it’s a man named Cecil Sharp. He came around the turn of the 20th Century and was an eminent musicologist in England, just when musicology was developing as an academic specialty. He was the number one in that and everyone looked up to him.
Among other things, he was racist, although the racism at the turn of the century was simply so profound and extreme that it’s remarkable you could find someone who wasn’t actively racist. But what [Sharp] did was identify two strains of music: folk music, which was white, consisting of English folk ballads and played by the people up in the mountain hollers of Virginia. And then there was black music: it was blues and to Sharp it was tainted somehow, it was capital-B Bad.
But there’s 50 things wrong with that hypothesis. First of all, there was no purity: 50 percent of the people in these mountain hollers were black, and mixing of white music with church music had already started. I mean, if you go back and look at any of these famous country musicians that would have been Cecil Sharp’s heroes, they all have a black influence. AP Carter, the patriarch of The Carter Family, went song hunting with Lesley Riddle, who was black. Jimmy Rodgers, the great so-called father of country music, came in as a yodeler, and he didn’t get that from Switzerland, he got it from gandy dancers, black railroad workers who yodeled. Hank Williams was taught music by a black guy in the town he grew up in.
The point being is that there’s no purity. There’s really no such thing as “white” music from these eras – they combined very rapidly and there was always a hybrid. The idea that white people listen to black music is not exactly an original idea, but no one has ever said, you know, the whole image of Dylan was as this Woody Guthrie clone, the folk singer, but his influences were at least as often black as they were white. Not only that but those black influences were significant on who he became.
JAMBASE: You stop at the 60s but I’m curious how your thread would extend to the present, particularly with rap and hip-hop, the most decidedly black music form to reach mainstream appreciation – and infuse so-called white culture –since jazz.
DM: To have done another 50 pages on rap, well first, it’s not exactly a music, it’s more a form of street poetry. But I avoided it because first I’m not as familiar with it, and also it would have taken that much more space.
JAMBASE: It could be a whole other book.
DM: It could. Where I ended was a good place to end. I was actually going to end it a year later with Dylan’s motorcycle accident, but a good editor was saying to me that when Dylan recorded “Highway 61 Revisited” it’s not so coincentally the same week that congress passed the Voting Rights Act. There’s a node in American history that’s right there. It marked a good place for me to stop.
JAMBASE: So Dennis are you the type to already be thinking about another book or is that absurd given the long journey to finish this one and now get to celebrate it?
DM: It’s not absurd it all. I remember being completely absorbed with promoting the Kerouac book, and then at the end of that year, I turned 30 and I went into this very severe postpartum depression for like three months. I didn’t have a book to occupy my mind. And I didn’t know at the time that I would do the Grateful Dead book. When I was getting near the end of the Dead book, I determined that there’s a simple way to avoid postpartum depression. It’s called staying pregnant! [laughs]
The Dead book absorbed me, especially having to stop for essentially 12 to 15 years while we were on tour. But I can’t really tell you how I came up with the Highway 61 topic. I joked that Kerouac was on the East Coast and the Dead was on the West Coast and I had to do something in the middle. But I really did start with this question of the 60s, and slowly it evolved from there.
Next, I really want to do a cultural history of San Francisco – a very strange cultural history. I might keep the working title, which is “City of Weird.” San Francisco has this personality that’s somewhat unusual – it’s always been a welcoming place for the strange and for those who don’t fit in anywhere else. I’m not yet sure as a writer how I would do it. There are aspects of San Francisco’s social history – and you can imagine me holding my fingers in air quotes as I say this – that are “supposed to be fictional,” but really, [Dashiell Hammett’s] Sam Spade is part of the psyche of San Francisco. Vertigo, the movie, is part of the psyche of San Francisco. I’d need characters like that to be part of the book. I’m not quite sure yet how I’d weave them in but I’d argue they’re as much a part of the psyche of the city as Harvey Milk or George Moscone, or Barry Bonds.
JAMBASE: Your Grateful Dead book is considered the definitive biography of the band, and even the good books on the band are enough to stuff a shelf already. Is there any facet of the Dead you’d still want to explore in book form? Is there anything more to say there?
DM: No, at least not any book-length topic. I really don’t think I have any more to say. I could get interested in some facet in a short essay; writing the liner notes to the Fillmore West box set, that was some of the nicest work I ever did in my life just from the pleasure of it. That was great fun. But book length, I gave it my best and I’m proud of the book I put out. I don’t think I could do it again.
People have asked me on a commercial level, why don’t you put out another chapter or add something for the 50th anniversary? And really, so much has happened with the band that isn’t fun that I would have to get into. Without Garcia, the band, to me, is leaderless. Even though of course Garcia spent his whole career saying, I’m not the leader, he set a tone. Without him, in some ways I think they’ve floundered in some decisions. Even now they probably regret some decisions although it’s not like I talk with them every day. But no, I don’t want to pick through all that again. It ends where it ends.