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“Music is the most effective form of communication because it affects more than just the intellect,” says cultural historian and author Dennis McNally ’78 PhD. In his new book, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, he depicts the long relationship between white people and black music─from the minstrel era of the 1840s to the music of Bob Dylan in the 1960s─that has shifted mainstream culture.

“My book is about white individuals carefully listening to a black minority and saying, ‘hmm… there is something important to learn here.’ In each case, it encouraged them to a wider, more inclusive world view and eventually led to some of the most profound questions challenging the American verities of consumerism, relationship to nature, sexuality, the corporate state and imperialism that came out of the 60s,” notes McNally.

All told, the author spent 13 years researching material for On Highway 61. He read endless books, listened to music and traveled up and down the Mississippi River and Highway 61.  

“[Bob] Dylan brought it all together for me,” says McNally. “In his memoir, Chronicles, there’s a long passage about his relationship to Highway 61. When he was a high school kid living in Minnesota, he listened to a radio broadcast from Little Rock called the No Name Jive Show that played the cream of black music─Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Chuck Berry and the like. It truly affected him. And even though he was at the northern end of Highway 61 and all that music was coming from the southern end, the highway united them and he felt a connection.”

McNally has long had an interest in music and its influence on cultural history. He received his PhD in American history from UMass Amherst in 1978 for a biography of Jack Kerouac, which was later published as Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. In 1980, he became the authorized biographer for the Grateful Dead and from 1984 to 1995, he toured with the band as its publicist. In 2002, he published a history of the band, A Long Strange Trip/The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, which reached the New York Times best- seller list. 

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