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Going Down to Highway 61, Again

U.S. Highway 61 is the subject of a number of American songs. Blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes cut “Highway 61 Blues” in 1932. In 1933 Memphis bluesmen Jack Kelly and Will Batts recorded “Highway No. 61 Blues,” and the Tupelo-born Sparks Brothers recorded “61 Highway” Other similarly titled recordings from that decade included “Highway 61″ by Jesse James and “Highway 61 Blues” by Sampson Pittman. These songs and others were subsequently recorded by other bluesmen and women. Then, of course, there is the song titled “Highway 61 Revisited”, that appears on the album Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan. The road itself stretches from Minnesota’s northlands all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, paralleling the mighty Mississippi River. Like the waterway itself, Highway 61 cuts through the US heartland, sharing its weathered surface with rich men and poor women, dark-skinned and light, descendants of slaves and slave-owners, soldiers and civilians, hoboes and RVs, wanderers and folks with a purpose; they enter and leave the road, appearing and disappearing into the fabric that is the North American heartland. Also like the Mississippi River, it is the source of memories and tall tales, some written and many more shared among friends and acquaintances made in a bar or by a campfire.

It is this latter tradition that author and cultural historian Dennis McNally explores in his latest work, titled On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Having already made his mark in the cultural realm with his comprehensive biography of Jack Kerouac (Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, And America) and the official biography of the musical and cultural traveling show called the Grateful Dead (What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been), McNally adds to his credits, and our understanding of the United States, with this exploration of the intersection of culture, race, and the idea of freedom intrinsic to the American myth.

McNally begins the journey in New England, hundreds of miles from the Mississippi and his fabled road. This beginning is a philosophical one, founded in the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau. Specifically, his thoughts on one of the United States’ most damning and unforgiving stains—the stain of African slavery. McNally succinctly ties together Thoreau’s expression of the American ideal that places individual freedom at its core, the obvious contradiction such a philosophy comes up against in a slaveholding nation, and Thoreau’s increasingly radical writings opposing the institution of slavery itself. This chapter ends with a brief look at Thoreau’s essay titled “A Plea for John Brown;” a man who in Thoreau’s estimation (and McNally’s too, I venture) embodied the genuine freedom considered essential to the American settler myth. After all, Brown acted as a free man to free other men held in slavery by a nation unwilling to face one of its most fundamental failings.

Next, McNally takes the reader west to the Mississippi. To Hannibal, Missouri to be precise. He introduces the reader to the young Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and then to his masterwork; his tale of two outsiders on the Mississippi, one a lost boy named Huckleberry Finn and the other an escaped slave named Jim. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains in the top echelons of literature composed in the United States. Nominally the story of these two people, their relationship, their hiding out from their pursuers and the people of the river, this novel is an abolitionist novel in a manner so intrinsic that aspect of its essence was (and is) missed by all too many of its detractors. For McNally, its publication in the late 19th century is the beginning of a neverending journey of discovery, denial, reconciliation and rejection for Americans white-skinned and Black. Like Huck and Jim’s travels down the river, there is never any genuine certainty things will turn out well.

There are many sides to the story of the United States since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Almost all of them include tales underwritten with hate and filled with violence. Some of them are told in narratives of poetry and novels. Others are told in song. Those are the ones McNally is interested in; the songs of black men and women, of blues and jazz. Also, those moments when white-skinned America hears those songs and makes them their own. It is an essential fact of US culture since the Civil War that much of its musical tradition was (and is) born in its African-American communities. Over the next couple hundred pages of On Highway 61, McNally relates the dynamic of this coming together, complete with a multitude of songs, the artists, and the recordings. In his telling, the reader gets a history of jazz, the blues, and US race relations. Additionally, conventional myths like those of American exceptionalism and equality are exposed for the lies they are while some of the wounds they have caused are exposed. More than an indictment though, McNally’s narrative is also a study of the never-ending struggle to obtain the equality and the freedom promised in that myth of American exceptionalism. It is also about the disappointment that ensues when the struggle fails, again.

McNally ties up his history by looking at a musician whose songs, performances and adult life provide an almost perfect synthesis of those that preceded him in his trade. That man is the one they call Bob Dylan. Robert Johnson and Son House; Bessie Smith and Elvis; Charlie Patton and Alan Lomax; Willie Dixon and Benny Goodman—and all that came between. Bob Dylan was born near the northern beginning of Highway 61 and left his home rolling on that asphalt. He learned the blues, hillbilly, jazz, and folk, mixed it up with poetry, politics and rock and roll and turned on the pop music world. McNally considers this and does his best to explain how Dylan pulled it off—mostly by being a bluesman. It had worked for his predecessors and by god, it worked for Dylan, too.

I finished reading On Highway 61 while riding a bus down Vermont’s Route 7, a small US highway that goes through the towns and villages that populate the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. Like its grander cousins in the old (pre-interstate system) US highway system, Route 7 goes through the population centers it serves, unlike the interstates which pass them by. Sugar houses and falling-in farms are scattered along its shoulders; the bus stops in almost every town along its route, taking on passengers and letting others off, each of them with a story to tell. Route 66 goes from east to west and is a road filled with legend. US Route 1 goes from New England to Florida, finally ending in the tip of Florida—tourists, retirees, immigrant and contraband have traveled its path for decades. None of these roads (or their similarly numbered cousins around the countryside) bears the weight of history like Highway 61. Like other roads, it is both metaphor and reality. Northward migrations of people and cultures and songs of love, despair, tragedy and joy are but a small part of this road’s essence. Dennis McNally is but the latest guide to take the reader on its byways. The job he does is matched by few and his perspective is his alone. Indeed, McNally rocks, rolls, burns, cruises and kills it in this book, his petal to the metal from beginning to end.

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the most recent novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Sunset Daydream: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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