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

[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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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