Book Talk: Black music, white culture and a legendary U.S. highway

BOSTON (Reuters) - Author Dennis McNally accompanied the Grateful Dead as a publicist and historian on the band’s “long strange trip,” and he chronicled Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation author of “On the Road.”

Author Dennis McNally is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by McNally. McNally accompanied the Grateful Dead as a publicist and historian on their "long strange trip," and he chronicled Jack Kerouac, the Beat generation author of "On the Road." For his latest book, "On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom," REUTERS/Dennis McNally/Handout via Reuters

For his latest book, “On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom,” McNally twice drove every mile of U.S. Route 61, the legendary Mississippi River road, to document the influence of black music on white America.

McNally spoke to Reuters about the music and the “freedom principle” underlying more than a century of American experience.

Q: What is the common thread in your writing on American counterculture, and now the influence of black music?

A: I came of age in the ‘60s, a remarkable era. In this book I started with the question, “What are the deeper roots of the ‘60s?” The most powerful force that drove people to ask the questions challenging the dominant paradigm, from capitalism to the rules about sex, to the environment, in significant part derived from this 120-year relationship between white people and black music.

I started with Thoreau. If you’re interested in divergent viewpoints in American history, he’s the place to start. The basis for his entire point of view about challenging American standard thought, socially, was about slavery and African-American culture. It was about reacting to the fact that an enormous number of people in America were not free.

Q: How would you describe the “freedom principle?”

A: The ‘60s was an explosion of the freedom principle. It has its roots in Thoreau, in Huckleberry Finn and in black music. Thoreau, his message was autonomy for the individual and making up your mind.

Q: How does black music embody that?

A: They were the least free. White people have been listening to black people make music going back to plantation culture, to banjo music played by slaves. It was what black people had at hand to communicate with.

By the 1890s, you had segregation so fierce and racism so profound that simply being a black musician singing a song is almost a statement of challenge. Just to exist was a pursuit of freedom.

Through the 20th century you’ve got white people first listening to white imitations of black music. Most white people were not out there listening to Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway or Count Basie.

The bop musicians, they were the first ones to articulate their art as not being entertainment, but as simply being art. That’s revolutionary. They espoused their own freedom as musicians.

Music is almost inherently subversive. You get it in ways that aren’t necessarily intellectual. Go all the way up to rock ‘n’ roll, the perfect fusion of black and white influences. Rock ‘n’ roll had this liberating influence on people, not just because of the lyrics, but because of the power, and the rhythm, it made you want to dance.

Q: How is it that this all leads in your book to Bob Dylan?

A: In his memoir, he talks about growing up in Minnesota at one end of the river, listening on the radio to black music in coming up from Arkansas. He is the shining example of all the streams of the book coming together, of folk music and black music, of the liberation principle, and of the connection to Highway 61, which was 50 miles from his house. He gets all of that.

Q: The Mississippi River is as prominent in your book as Highway 61. What did you learn on your travels?

A: The river and the road, they’re one and the same. The Middle West from almost the time people lived there was seen as this place of conservative unwillingness to make a lot of changes. And yet in the middle there is a gigantic, incredible, powerful river.

That critical trio of music, ragtime, blues and jazz, that erupted, it’s really one of the most amazing moments of creativity in American history. These people that had nothing, that had only been out of slavery for 30 years, they create this music that’s dominated American music ever since. And they created it by the river.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Nick Zieminski