Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music; The Trouble with Music

Gene Santoro, Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004);

Mat Callahan, The Trouble with Music (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005).

These two excellent books, although dissimilar in scope and approach, complement each other nicely. In reading the two together, one gets a full picture of the dynamics of the contemporary pop music scene, and of its political, social, cultural and economic ramifications. Popular culture, and especially popular music, plays an important role, as it has since the Sixties, both in affirming and in undermining the political and cultural norms of the status quo. It can thus help us, in the spirit of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, not only to interpret the world, but to change it.

Santoro’s Highway 61 Revisited (the title is also that of Bob Dylan’s 1965 electric folk-rock LP) is an interpretive panorama of the leading genres of pop music in the United States since the 1920s and ‘30s, especially focusing on the avant-garde jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the tumultuous new rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s, as seen through the jeweler’s lens of analyzing many of these genres’ leading artists. The book’s subtitle, The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music, describes its contents succinctly. Santoro’s well-developed thesis is that, out of the various and intertwining roots of blues, jazz, rock, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, soul, R&B, country and folk music has grown a cultural tree of substantial dimension, with myriad limbs rich in foliage.

Callahan’s The Trouble with Music is likewise interpretive and panoramic, but in a different way: his book is a broader analytical polemic against the commodification of music -– an economically “valueless” commodity in itself, in which all humans share and which we experience communally -– into a commercial object that generates profit. In the process, Music, whose creation he calls “a substanceless activity producing an intangible result” (198), turns into Anti-Music, a marketable commodity “composed on commission by record companies to monopolize an existing market according to specific criteria” that “cannot … express the personal experiences or feelings of the people involved, but must instead propagate sugary sentimentality, loveless sexual fantasy, idiotic boasting or lamenting and ‘Hallmark Card’ philosophizing, accompanied by easily memorized but utterly forgettable tunes” (229). His book is an activist call for us to liberate the Commons from its enclosure by the recording industry with its deliberately manufactured “star” and “hit” system.

Both authors are solidly grounded in the subject matter. Santoro is jazz and popular music critic for The Nation. He displays an appreciative intimacy with the music, musicians and composers he discusses, having interviewed such major jazz artists as Max Roach and Miles Davis. As a teenager in the Sixties in New York City, he experienced first-hand the creative musical ferment then in the air. Callahan, for his part, is a working musician, record producer and writer who has been integrally involved with pop music ever since joining the Musicians’ Union as a teenager in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, 1968. Like Santoro, he knows contemporary music as an insider. But Callahan is also involved in music as a left activist and philosopher, and The Trouble with Music is very much shaped by this perspective. He draws insights from Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Peter Kropotkin, Jacques Attali, Alain Baidou, Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin and William Blake.

Callahan criticizes two leading left views of musical culture that he sees as too limiting. One of these is the all-enveloping Culture Industry thesis of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose pessimistic determinism is directly belied by the cultures of resistance that have been integral to popular music in our time, from the folk and rock music of the Sixties through the punk, world music and hip-hop of later years. Callahan also polemicizes against the folk purity embodied in Pete Seeger, as being too closed in upon itself and thus unable to comprehend that rock, jazz, blues, soul, R&B, country and other primarily urban and electric musical forms are vitally a people’s art as well, a lived folk music culture in its own right that also expresses the people’s hopes, aspirations, struggles and resistance.

The range of Santoro’s Highway 61 Revisited is represented by the artists shown on its dust jacket. They include: Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson. The book’s two opening chapters are devoted to Armstrong and Guthrie, seen in Santoro’s eyes as Promethean precursors and seminal originators of what was later to come. In other chapters, Santoro vividly limns the pioneer days of be-bop and later jazz fusion; gospel, blues and soul; and the early 1960s folk music scene as represented by Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. Dylan is central to Santoro’s deep exploration of the rock which originated in that small but fecund slice of a decade we refer to as the Sixties, 1965-68, and which continues to live on so richly, through artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and others. Santoro also has an ear for the hilarious, and the deeply serious within it, that he displays in sketches of Lenny Bruce and the Firesign Theatre, as well as an eye for the tragic within the seemingly maudlin, so illuminated in his sketch of jazzman-junkie Chet Baker. Highway 61 Revisited ends on an expectant, hopeful note, with chapters on some new jazz artists and on folk artist Ani DiFranco.

But, while Santoro finds much to celebrate in contemporary pop music, he knows far better than to be merely celebratory of an industry that has chewed up as much artistry as it has given forth, an industry where artistic standing and demonstrable creativity are, overwhelmingly, happenstances in an overtly profit-driven commercial realm. Santoro’s understanding of the recording industry and the “star” and “hit” system is every bit as profound and acerbic as Callahan’s, but is revealed much differently, through portraits of artists in their specific time and space. Both writers understand the centrality of the African American to the best of our popular musical culture, and both recognize the confusions and hostilities of a white America that belatedly came to appreciate African American art forms that were being created unnoticed by it, literally unseen and unheard by it, until they suddenly burst forth, exploded, as hitherto unknown jazz, blues and R&B, and became the basis of almost all that is vital in contemporary pop music.

For both Callahan and Santoro, the Sixties are central to the appreciation of contemporary pop. They recognize, however, that the Sixties were a happy accident, too little understood for the accident it was. While the unanticipated flowering of the Sixties exhilarated us as participants, its free, anarchic spirit also drove those who feared such freedom to move against it, so as to ensure -– through measures of repression, cooptation, replacement and substitution –- that such an accident would not happen again. The same fear, as Callahan and Santoro show, permeated the recording industry, which took the necessary steps to commercially corral this troublesome creative anarchy and to see to it that a future Janis Joplin would be a Britney Spears, a John Lennon, a Justin Timberlake, that Public Enemy would be 50 Cent, and that “Get Rich or Die Trying” would maintain itself forever as the alpha and omega of pop culture.

But the capitalist music industry, like other repressive forces, forgets that repression and silencing breed the very resistance it tried to squash, abort, and prevent in the first place. Santoro’s Highway 61 Revisited and Callahan’s The Trouble with Music stand strongly, appropriately, and triumphantly together. By enriching our understanding of popular music, they give us tools for confronting a commercializing, commodifying culture without futilely trying to make culture into a political locomotive.

The quality and the complementarity of these two books can be expressed by comparing Santoro’s Highway 61 Revisited to Engels’ empirical survey, The Condition of the Working Class in England, and Callahan’s The Trouble with Music to the more abstract and analytical Capital and Communist Manifesto. Both lead us back, finally, to Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach.

Reviewed by George Fish
Indianapolis
georgefish666@yahoo.com

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