HIGHWAY 6I REVISITED OFFERS, I hope, alternate ways of seeing the evolution of American pop culture, especially music, over the last century.
It opens with twin chapters on Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie. In the book's unfolding narrative, this complex pair of geniuses represent the headwaters of significant and twisty currents flowing through the last hundred years of American pop-music history, here separating into isolated backwaters or bypassed channels, there merging into an unavoidable river with many deltas, but always, whether incrementally or with white-water force, shaping key portions of the cultural landscape. Both Armstrong and Guthrie began as folk musicians performing for small marginal groups. Armstrong became the dapper virtuoso who survived endless varieties of racism while inventing the musical language that transformed jazz from folk music to art, though he never stopped insisting (unlike many of his more recent progeny) that entertainment was an indispensable aspect of his art; he enthralled a mass multiracial audience, which made him forever synonymous with jazz as well as rich, though he insisted on living relatively simply. Guthrie kept his talents deliberately rude, at least on the surface, because he wanted to dissolve the stage's fourth wall by not seeming any more professional than his listeners; he smelled bad and dressed like the hobo he'd been, dynamited mass success whenever it got too near him, and became famous anyway, the catalytic icon energizing the wavelike resurgences of American roots music that have punctuated every decade since. Armstrong, a black outsider by birth, wanted in, in his genial way—though thanks to America's color bar, he rarely forgot where he stood. Guthrie, a white insider by birth transformed by family tragedy and Okie alienation and leftist politics, in his brusque way wanted out. But both challenged many of American society's cherished imperatives and ideals, implicitly as well as explicitly, in their art, their opinions, their attitudes, and their lives.
Highway 61 Revisited traces how these dynamics and their corollaries spool through post-World War II American culture via selected figures and moments that illustrate the interplay at work in various contexts. In