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Classic review: Bob Dylan in America

Sean Wilentz's study of enigmatic music icon Bob Dylan is at once a time-hopping biography; a catalog of Dylan’s myriad, eclectic influences; and a primer on American music.

By John Kehe / May 22, 2011

Bob Dylan in America By Sean Wilentz Knopf Doubleday 400 pp.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Oct. 4, 2010.] Writers and critics (and lately, the artist himself) have slowly been unmasking the elusive Mr. Dylan for decades now, with 150 tomes dedicated to penetrating the briar patch that is Bob. Well, I’m happy to announce that we’re definitely making progress and, with Bob Dylan in America, a giant leap.

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Author Sean Wilentz combines a lifelong music fan’s enthusiasm with a history detective’s doggedness to unearth Dylan’s entire root system, from the Mississippi Delta to the iron mines of Minnesota to MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. The book is at once a time-hopping biography; a catalog of Dylan’s myriad, eclectic influences (how about Charlie Chaplin, Walt Whitman, and Judy Garland, for starters?); and a primer on American music – gospel, minstrel, blues, country, and folk. The words “In America” in the title define the conceptual heart of the book. Wilentz writes: “I have ... been curious about when, how, and why Dylan picked up on certain forerunners…. What do those tangled influences tell us about America?... What does America tell us about Bob Dylan?”

Wilentz was born to write this book – truth be told, he’s a ringer. Besides being a Bancroft Award winner for American history, and a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy awards finalist, he was also a child of Greenwich Village, where his family owned 8th Street Books, a major early 1960s hangout for beatniks, poets, and folk singers like Robert Zimmerman, recently arrived from Hibbing, Minn. Wilentz’s father, Elias, edited The Beat Scene, an early organ of beat poetry that showcased such leading lights as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. As historian-in-residence for Dylan’s official website (bobdylan
.com), Wilentz has unprecedented access to rare photos, working tapes, and recording session notes, and he uses them to unlock some of the enduring mysteries of Dylan and his groundbreaking, shape-shifting output.

Review of "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads" by Greil Marcus

Fans and detractors alike would have to agree that, in his prime, Bob Dylan was a visionary. But exactly whose vision was it? Wilentz traces Dylan’s American family tree with all the roots and branches exposed. “Dylan was not so much a sponge … as an alchemist, taking common materials and creating new art. Nothing that came within his field of vision escaped him…. [A]nything of beauty, no matter how terrible, became something to seize upon and make his own.”

The author draws creative timelines through three American musicians who never met. The book’s first chapter profiles American classical composer and political activist Aaron Copland, whose folk-tinged compositions mined the vastness and primitive grandeur of the American West and Appalachian Mountains in the 1930s. Wilentz sees in Dylan, decades later, a kindred spirit, able to translate the American experience into challenging yet inspiring and accessible music.

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