Book review: ‘Bob Dylan in America’ by Sean Wilentz
Every modern American adolescence has its own distinctive soundtrack and, if you grew up in the 1960s, Bob Dylan’s voice and music almost surely echo in your ear.
“Bob Dylan in America,” a new biography of the singer-songwriter by distinguished cultural, political historian Sean Wilentz, gives an enjoyably thorough, convincing explanation why Dylan’s new music has gone on finding new audiences ever since he burst upon the New York folk scene of the early 1960s, fresh from the iron range of northern Minnesota and ferociously ambitious for his art.
It’s an extraordinary, resonant intersection of subject and biographer: Dylan, after all, is the only American popular singer ever to be awarded a special Pulitzer citation in the arts — an honor he shares with the popular composers and musicians Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington, though the latter three received theirs posthumously. Wilentz is the only American historian ever to win both a Bancroft Prize — for “The Rise of American Democracy” — and a Grammy nomination for the 50-plus pages of liner notes he did for a DVD release of Dylan’s 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall. He’s also been acquainted with Dylan since he was a small boy in and out of the Greenwich Village bookstore his family owned and which the singer frequented. Dylan met Allen Ginsberg in the apartment above the shop. More recently, Wilentz, now a professor at Princeton, has been the official historian of Dylan’s website. (Once you’ve gotten your head around the notion that Dylan has a website, the fact that it has its own historian seems somehow unexceptional.)
Dylan, of course, has been the subject of other biographies and has published the first book in what he intends as a multi-volume autobiography. Wilentz’s book stands apart from these in the lucidity of its prose, the rigor of its research and convincing originality of the place he assigns his subject in the context of American cultural history. Fans looking for a recording-by-recording, concert-by-concert account of the singer and songwriter’s career would do better looking elsewhere, though there’s plenty of truly fine analysis of the most significant songs and recordings. Where Wilentz excels is in teasing out the origins of Dylan’s artistic impulses, the context in which they arose and flowered, the multiple sources of his art.
Thus, there’s a fascinating discussion of Aaron Copland and the musical component of the left-wing popular front between the wars, as well as the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theories on the environment in which Dylan first formulated his notions about performance. If that begins to sound a bit drearily scholarly for the music’s fans, there’s also a detailed reconstruction of Dylan’s first revolutionary — and myth-encrusted — Nashville sessions that rings absolutely true. (Who knew that Highway 61, which Dylan’s fans regularly revisit along with their artist, runs from Hibbing, Minn., where he grew up, to New Orleans, where he found important musical roots?)
Wilentz explores the particular influences — musical and lyrical — that Dylan has sought out for himself and the self-consciously serious way in which he has pursued that passionate exploration. It began not just in Manhattan’s cafes and bars, but in the New York Public Library, where the college dropout’s self-education went deep into original sources. “For a professional historian,” Wilentz writes, “it was mildly thrilling to learn that Dylan discovered the cuneiforms of his art in the microfilm room.” What emerged from that process was a new language of lyrical social criticism that was totally contemporary while rooted in the historical tumult of mid-19th century America. As Dylan would say, “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
Wilentz compares his subject to the seminal bluesman Blind Willie McTell, one of whose masterpieces is the now classic “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” parts of which Dylan appropriated. McTell, Wilentz writes, “was as Dylan would later be, a musical modernist with strong roots in traditional forms…. McTell was beholden to no particular performance or composing style … and he excelled in numerous genres, including amalgamated genres of his own devising.” As the author explains, McTell, like many other celebrated “bluesmen” of his generation, belonged to a tradition of independent African American “minstrelsy” that stretches back to Reconstruction and whose practitioners mastered everything from gospel to Tin Pan Alley hits. They accepted the appellation “bluesmen” to distinguish themselves from black artists who played jazz but thought of themselves more broadly as “songsters.”
That’s also a description sufficiently capacious to describe the dazzling variety of Dylan’s output. As the author once told an interviewer, “Dylan is a master of the American ballad. Ballads are maybe the major music form in which Americans describe their land and each other.”
Wilentz’s unselfconscious ability to discuss the ultra-politically conscious Copland and the influential McTell, who would exert such a pull on Dylan that he became the subject of a celebrated song, also says something about the breadth of his cultural erudition. Here is scholarship that successfully slips the bonds of specialty and pretension.
At one point, the author compares Dylan’s compositional method, which often involves quotation, appropriation and juxtaposition from a wide variety of musical, textual and even cinematic sources, to a more familiar form of assemblage. “Although reminiscent of the modernists’ collages,” Wilentz writes, “Dylan’s method aimed not simply at allusion but at something very different, essential to his recent work — more emphatic, at times risky dissolution of distinctions between past and present, as well as between high and low, scholarly and popular, exotic and familiar, moving between and among them as if it required no effort.”
That’s not a bad description of Wilentz’s own method as a biographer and cultural historian, and his daring makes “Bob Dylan in America” a pleasure to read.