Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan In America
A fresh take on a legend, by the historian-in-residence at the official Bob Dylan website
Equal parts literary and musical history, Sean Wilentz’s curatorial analysis of Bob Dylan’s career offers a fresh take on the artist — a feat, considering that Dylan’s body of work is well-documented and scrutinized. Wilentz, a Princeton professor and “historian in residence” at the official Dylan website, admits straightaway to the boyhood luck that led to a lifelong obsession: his family owned the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, influential among downtown poets and folk revivalists. With a front-row seat to the counterculture, Wilentz happily adds anecdotes as he traces Dylan’s artistic lineage. He recalls Dylan’s Lincoln Center debut on Halloween night, 1964, where even early in his career the songwriter appeared to be outgrowing his folksinger roots. (“He may have been evolving, but so were we,” Wilentz, a teenager at the time, notes.)
From folkie to poet-mystic and avatar of classic Americana, Dylan’s genius, writes the author, rests on “his ability to write and sing in more than one era at once.” His amalgamation of folk, country and blues styles — the “Old, Weird America” of Greil Marcus’s coinage — is key to his persona; a pastiche solidified upon the release of “Love and Theft” in 2001, Western suit and pencil mustache in tow. Wilentz traces Dylan’s artistic growth to key movements in popular music and culture, beginning with radical-left songwriters of the ’30s. He glosses over Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (well-tread material), to discuss composers Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein. “It’s a rather delicate operation to put fresh and unconventional harmonies to well-known melodies without spoiling their naturalness,” wrote Copland, a Communist supporter whose scores for Billy the Kid and The Heiress brought popular acclaim. Like Copland, Dylan’s compositions, “[could appeal] to a mass audience without sacrificing his own vision.” As for lyrical appeal, Wilentz explores Dylan’s relationship with the Beat movement (arguing it faded in New York around 1961, just as the young songwriter arrived in the city). The poets’ influences — notably a lasting friendship with Allen Ginsberg, seeded in Wilentz’s uncle’s apartment above the bookstore, he notes — helped form the free-verse fragments that broke him from the traditional folksinger mold in the mid ’60s.
Among the author’s great strengths are his jazzy, vivid descriptions of recording sessions, culled from logs and tapes, including the long, exhilarating sprint to cut Blonde on Blonde with the Hawks and Nashville session men in 1965 and ’66. And the archivist is clearly at home discussing the evolution of folk and blues songs, from field recordings to staples of sets by Dylan and his peers. One treat is a chapter devoted to “Delia,” based on a 1900 Savannah murder case, which found its way into the blues tradition and eventually Dylan’s 1993 album, World Gone Wrong. Listening to Wilentz narrate his work, it’s hard not to reach for those classic records as a soundtrack.