Bob Dylan sings the songs of America

Special to the Los Angeles Times

“No one ever seems to go in or out of that building,” says Sean Wilentz, pointing out Princeton’s Nassau Hall, a campus landmark old enough to have been held by the British during the Revolutionary War.

It’s appropriate that this eminent American historian (“The Rise of American Democracy,” “The Age of Reagan”) is talking about spirits from the past and mysteries of the present. His new book, " Bob Dylan in America,” (Doubleday) is about how the strains of American music and American history have come together in one man over the course of a nearly 50-year career. In Wilentz’s view, Dylan has served as a conduit for potent and nearly forgotten strands in American musical, folk and political culture. The Popular Front artists, the Beat writers, the forgotten blues singers discovered by John and Alan Lomax, these are some of the people whose work speaks through Dylan. And so, appropriate for a historian, the book is a vision of how the past becomes part of our living present.

Wilentz, who will take a year off from teaching at Princeton in the fall to be a Los Angeles Times Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, comes by his Dylan fascination genetically. . In the late 1940s, his father, Elias, ran the 8th Street Bookstore in the heart of Greenwich Village at 8th and MacDougal, near the Folklore Center and such burgeoning folk clubs as the Kettle of Fish and the Gaslight Cafe. And the apartment above the shop, where Wilentz’s uncle lived, was also the place where Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg on Boxing Day 1963. A young Wilentz was also present at Dylan’s Halloween 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall (released in 2004 as part of Dylan’s ongoing “Bootleg” series of CDs, with a remembrance of the show from Wilentz). He has also served as official historian for Dylan’s website.

Wilentz is suited to “Bob Dylan in America” not just because of his family legacy but by his immersion in the history he has chronicled in the course of his career. The book is not a detour but very much in line with his other work.

“What I have,” Wilentz said over lunch recently, “is a particular training and affinity and knowledge that is about the history of the United States and about its culture and music. When I listen to Dylan songs, all of that stuff comes alive for me. I’m impatient, even bored, with the kinds of distinctions that would have someone in my position writing a book about Bob Dylan seem at all odd. Writing historical scholarship is very hard work, and I work hard at it. But I’m interested in a lot of different things, and do my best — and work just as hard — to write about them with my sense of American history and its multitude of webs and contexts. If that confounds critics and readers, so be it; I just hope enough of them will get it and that others get over the reverse snobbism that says no serious professor — none — can be taken seriously writing about popular music.”

Dylan’s interest in that multitude of webs and contexts has been especially apparent since 1992’s “Good as I Been to You,” the CD of old blues and folk numbers that marked the resurgence of the singer’s vitality after a long period of indifferent records, and in the omnivorous interest in American music he details in his 2004 “Chronicles, Volume 1,” the first of three planned volumes of autobiography.

Wilentz talks about Dylan’s connection to the folk tradition, the oral passing on of songs, stories and tall tales. “He had this sensibility that the past wasn’t the past, that the past was the present,” Wilentz says of Dylan’s early days in New York. “He was living in this world where Edgar Allan Poe was living around the corner,” in what Wilentz calls “a phantasmagoria of American history. Some of that was evident early on, but the fullness of it only became clear as his career developed. I mean, there’s no big jump, there’s no big leap. It just becomes clearer. People don’t remember that Bob Dylan did not spring full-blown out of the head of the [‘60s].”

When a figure is as identified with an era as Dylan is, it’s easy to limit his historical context. In “Bob Dylan in America” Wilentz sketches out the political and cultural moments that Dylan picked up on.

Expected to become the standard-bearer for a new, revivified left political culture, Dylan thwarted expectations by going electric and abjuring what he called “finger-pointing songs.” As Wilentz points out, that eclecticism is to be expected from a man who, being born in the ‘40s, grew up with a sense of American popular music that predates rock ‘n’ roll.

All of which suggests why Dylan continues to confound people, even when he is being straightforward. The most recent examples are the startlingly prescient 2003 film co-written by and starring Dylan “Masked and Anonymous,” a vision of America become Third World dictatorship and the presidency handed down from corrupt father to incompetent son. The movie, which was allusive and funny and frightening and raw in the way Dylan’s best work is often viewed, was dismissed by critics as if they had no knowledge of that work. Something different happened to last year’s wonderful CD of holiday music, “Christmas in My Heart,” Dylan’s love letter to the holiday music that was part of the American popular music he grew up hearing.

Perhaps the fullest example of what Dylan has absorbed came in his 2002 return to the Newport Folk Festival, where he’d been booed for going electric in 1965. “There were ghosts all over the place,” Wilentz says. “You could feel them.”

He goes on: “We’re all wondering, what’s he gonna do, what’s he gonna do? It was a strange performance. It wasn’t technically brilliant. But he played a festival’s array of styles. It was like ‘Here’s American music, guys. You want a festival? I’m going to give you a festival.’ And then the ghosts began to me to become corporeal. You know, already there were everybody from Tennessee Ernie Ford and God knows who, not all Newport people by any means, but Son House and Muddy Waters; they were all kind of assuming shape again.” Wilentz says that by the time Dylan encored with the Grateful Dead’s arrangement of “Not Fade Away,” the spirits of Buddy Holly and Jerry Garcia had joined the mix.

That show, the discussion of which comes near the end of “Bob Dylan in America,” can stand for just some of the historical strands that come together in Dylan. “People think of it as Americana,” Wilentz says, “which is a term I can’t stand. Or roots music. Or all those labels. It’s not, it’s none of that. I mean, it’s American music. It’s the music this country has created out of blood, sweat and tears, and he picks all of that up and raises it, lowers it, he takes it and makes it his own.”

Taylor is a New York-based free-lance writer.