Historian, professor and writer Sean Wilentz’ new book Bob Dylan in America is neither biography or critical assessment though it is a bit of both. Comprised largely of previously written though updated articles, the book isn’t so much about Dylan as it is about some of his influences, and how Dylan fits into the great scheme of American music.
In a way that is both refreshing and strange, Wilentz doesn’t begin his book with the usual kid in Minnesota, goes to James Dean movies, escapes to Minneapolis, discovers Woody Guthrie, and hitchhikes east to New York story. Instead he starts with a chapter on Aaron Copland. The impetus for this was Dylan using Copland as the introductory music to his concerts in the early 2000s. However, this provides a different view of the New York City Dylan would arrive in, than the usual Greenwich Village folk scene and beats saga. More importantly, Wilentz manages to tie Copland and the folk scene together, and there are parallels both culturally and politically.
Wilentz clearly loves and enjoys history and research, and as a result the book is loaded with back stories, not only on people, but songs, the people in songs, and labor and political movements. In the Copland chapter particularly, there are times the writing comes off as a little too professorial, but if you make it through the tedious portions, Wilentz does resolve the points he is making.
Wilentz’ historian training provides an advantage over many writers of books on popular musicians in that he checks his facts. Having read many books on Dylan and other musicians, I’ll often see without trying too hard glaring errors on things that are easily checkable. When that happens, I then start wondering what else is wrong. That Wilentz is also knowledgeable about music itself, the various genres and what’s behind those genres gives this book extra weight.
While the chapters are in linear fashion time-wise, within the chapters, Wilentz will often jump back to earlier songs, recordings and events. The second chapter is about the Beats and Dylan’s relationship with Allen Ginsberg, and in doing so also described the Greenwich Village Dylan arrived at in 1961. Wilentz’ family ran the Eighth Street Bookshop in the Village, which was one of the great bookstores, and his father edited The Beat Scene, and anthology of beat poetry that just so happens to be one of the first books I can recall buying on my own, more than likely at that store. Dylan and Ginsberg first met at a party above the store. While the chapter gets briefly bogged down in the talking about the intellectual warring between the Beats and other writers, the chapter was enticing enough to make me think about if there was correspondence between Dylan and Ginsberg, it could be a potentially great book.
Wilentz then moves onto Dylan’s 1964 Halloween concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. The chapter is an updated and in my view improved version of the liner notes he wrote for the official release of that concert, Bootleg Series 6, Live ’64. I attended that show, and was the same age as Wilentz. It was his first Dylan concert, my second, and for all I know he could’ve been sitting near me in the balcony. Wilentz recognizes the importance of that show – the official release a few years ago is often maligned by never satisfied Dylan fan on various internet Dylan forums – and it was important for several reasons. This was at a time that Dylan stopped playing clubs and did not tour constantly the way he does now. His concerts were basically once a year events. Back then one of the reasons to see Dylan was to see what new songs he would sing. A couple of months before the show, in Sing Out! Magazine, editor Irwin Silber wrote “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan,” castigating him for moving away from protest songs. At that point in time, Sing Out! was pretty much the Bible of Folk Music, and one of the few ways kids like me had of getting any news of Dylan and other folk musicians. So I went to that concert wondering if Dylan was going to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” He did. He also introduced to New York – and at the time New York was his home base and he was a hero to a certain group of people, several new songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s Alright Ma,” and “Gates of Eden,” songs that wouldn’t appear on record for another five or six months. He also interacted with the audience in a way he hasn’t done since. Similar interaction may have happened on subsequent shows that fall, but at his next New York City appearance the following summer, things would be way different.
The book then moves on to the Blonde On Blonde sessions, which is one of the key chapters and one of the primary reasons Dylan fans will want this book. Wilentz was given access to one of the great holy grails, the outtakes from the Nashville sessions. Early recordings from New York, with Dylan’s touring band, The Hawks, plus some other musicians such as Al Kooper have been bootlegged for years. But with the exception of “Memphis Blues Again,” on the No Direction Home soundtrack, nothing else has been released. Only one song from the New York sessions, “One of Us Must Know” appeared on the album. Wilentz also interviewed some of the musicians, most notably multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, and provides the most in depth look to date at what went down on what many consider to be Dylan’s greatest album.
The book then jumps ahead almost a decade to the Rolling Thunder Revue, but Wilentz also uses that chapter to look back, sometimes briefly, sometimes in depth at The Basement Tapes, Tour ’74, Blood On The Tracks, and Dylan’s time studying with painter Norman Raeben, and Dylan’s not exactly historically accurate songs about George Jackson, Rueben Hurricane Carter, and Joey Gallo, as well as Dylan’s critically maligned film, Renaldo & Clara, and its connection to the film Children of Paradise. Unfortunately, Wilentz apparently saw a truncated version of the Revue at a matinee performance, and what’s missing from his account is the feel of the entire show, which was a real revue, with just about every musician getting a turn at the mic, and several segments that wound up being (at the show I saw) a four hour extravaganza. I would take exception to Wilentz calling it “a new variation on the thin wild mercury sound,” Dylan’s description of the Blonde on Blonde sound. I think it was more like the guitars crashing autumn gypsy carnival sound, but that’s a minor quibble.
Then Wilentz jumps ahead seven years to one of Dylan’s great works of the ’80s, though it wasn’t legitimately released until the ’90s, the song “Blind Willie McTell,” originally recorded for the album Infidels, and one of Dylan’s greatest songs period. While acknowledging the song might not be about Blind Willie McTell – one of the great bluesmen and songsters – at all, he then goes into a long, at times fascinating history of McTell, somehow managing to jump back to Dylan’s gospel records and forward again.
This method is repeated as Wilentz jumps ahead another decade to two songs from Dylan’s World Gone Wrong album which was old ballads and blues songs. In the chapter on “Delia,” you get the entire history of not only of Delia, but how the song evolved into many different forms and many of the singers who sang it, and in the somewhat shorter chapter on “Lone Pilgrim,” we’re treated to the history of Sacred Harp singing. In employing this method of going back and forth across time, much like Dylan does in some of his songs, Wilentz does manage to cover large portions of Dylan’s career.
While the book covers Dylan right up to the release of his Christmas album a year ago, the remaining key chapter is the one on “Love And Theft,” an album I consider to be one of the most important and complex of his later works. In the years preceding the album, Dylan had been dropping various clues into his concerts about what he was up to by not only playing his own songs, but exploring the works of other artists and genres from Bluegrass, Country and Blues to Western Swing, and also by telling really bad jokes at his concert. All of that and much more came together on the album which was at once a huge exploration into American music, autobiographical, and commentary. The album was loaded with references lyrical and musical and that’s understating it. Astute Dylan fans immediately picked up the references and on a site set up by a very knowledgeable Dylan fan from Poland, the lyrics were printed and annotated with various people contributing references as they discovered them. By sheer coincidence, the album was released on September 11, 2001, which confused the issue as certain lines could be construed to forecast the events of that day. “Love And Theft” was indeed a concept album, and it is my belief the references, the borrowing of lines and melodies were meant to be discovered by those who chose to look for them. Wilentz goes into the references, the various controversies surround this cut and paste style of writing which continued not only on Dylan’s next two original albums, but his book Chronicles as well, and explores the various reactions not only in the media but on the internet as well.
Not always an easy read, Bob Dylan in America is one of the more interesting books on Dylan because Wilentz places him in not the usual voice a generation bullshit context, rarely goes into his personal life and concentrates mainly on Dylan’s art and what’s behind it, and never indulges in the songs as some secret code to be interpreted. While I could probably have a good time arguing with him on a bunch of different ultimately minor points, in the end, Wilentz does what a good teacher is supposed to do, he challenges you to think.