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.
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He follows a parallel path to Blind Willie McTell, a surprisingly sophisticated blues artist who, like Dylan, defied category, mixing Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin, and gut-bucket blues into a uniquely flavored American gumbo. To complete the connective circle, Dylan would record a tribute song, “Blind Willie McTell” in 1983.Skip to next paragraph
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Wilentz takes us on a homeboy’s tour of Greenwich Village’s subterranean “pass the hat” clubs like The Kettle of Fish on MacDougal Street and Gerde’s Folk City on Bleeker, which would become the ambitious young folksinger’s Harvard and Yale. “Bob Dylan was turning into something very different from what anyone had ever heard, an artist whose imagination stretched far beyond even the most accomplished folk-song writers of the day.”
Wilentz drops us, streetside, into Manhattan, circa 1963, as Dylan was growing exponentially in the Village’s incubator, soaking up American history and legend, civil rights rumblings, cold-war politics, pop art, and the 6 o’clock news. He became a fixture at the New York Public Library, poring over American history, and a regular at the Village’s folklore center, hanging with other folkies and Beat poets like Ginsberg, whose edgy themes and fractured verse profoundly influenced Dylan’s songwriting. Soon he had outgrown his earnest folksinger clothes.
“I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene…. I got in on the tail end of that, and it was magic,” Dylan said in 1985. “It had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.” The writer of altruistic anthems like “Blowing in the Wind “ and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” had left the building.
In one of the book’s most engaging chapters, the author scores us a fly-on-the-wall perch at the all-night Nashville recording sessions for “Blonde on Blonde,” Dylan’s landmark 1965 double album. Riding a high with the out-of-left-field success of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan had found his most confident (and radio-friendly) voice, a sort of exuberant nihilism: “The lyric manuscripts from the Nashville sessions show Dylan working in a 1960s mode of what T.S. Eliot had called ... the disassociation of sensibility – cutting off discursive thought or wit from poetic value, substituting emotion for coherence.” And yes, you could dance to it.
Modern-day Dylan is burrowing ever more deeply into old American roots music. After several decades bereft of new ideas, he has once again reemerged, strapping on a hard hat and mining America’s still-rich blues veins, winning back some of the critics who lost interest in Dylan after “Blood on the Tracks,” more than three decades ago.
As for the Dylan that shocked and fascinated us in the mid-’60s, who seemed to be from some far-out world much hipper than our own – how did he get here? Now we have a map. It’s called “Bob Dylan in America.”
John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.