A combination of cultural history of American popular music and race relations and a fan’s notes on Bob Dylan, whose story consumes the final 100 pages.
The author, who has published previously about the Beats (Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, 1979) and about the Grateful Dead (A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, 2002), offers an extensive analysis of and tribute to the popular music that grew along Route 61, from New Orleans to Wyoming, Minnesota, paralleling for much of its length the course of the Mississippi River. McNally begins with Thoreau and abolitionism and then segues to Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the author joins the debate about that novel’s controversial final chapters) before beginning his story about the founding fathers and mothers of our popular music. Readers will recognize many of the artists he discusses. Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker—these and numerous others form the first three-quarters of McNally’s story. Lesser-known names and narratives are here, as well (Charlie Patton and Buddy Bolden among them). The author also offers a summary of key events in American racial history: the era of lynching, the Freedom Riders, the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., Selma and much more. He notes the transitions from blues to jazz to folk to rock and the emotions each emergence occasioned (he mentions that Pete Seeger wept when Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965). In 1965, Dylan released his album “Highway 61 Revisited,” and McNally’s praise for Dylan is unrelenting—and a tad disproportionate.
A concise, Dylan-heavy history of the American relationship between race and music.