Sean Wilentz: Writing for Bob Dylan

Historians in the News

Sean Wilentz, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (3-3-05):

[Sean Wilentz is professor of history and director of the program in American studies at Princeton University.]

For 30 years I have tried to write history. It is extremely hard work, but gratifying over the long haul. Landing a Grammy Award nomination for a brief historical piece was never in the cards, but a fluke, the result of strange twists of good fortune.

Forty years ago, as a 13-year-old, I attended a Bob Dylan concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. My family ran a bookshop in Greenwich Village that helped nurture the beat poets of the 1950s and the folk revivalists of the early 1960s, and my father, Elias Wilentz, edited The Beat Scene, one of the earliest anthologies of beat poetry. Down from the bookshop, on MacDougal Street, was one of the epicenters of the folk-music explosion, the Folklore Center, run by my father's friend Izzy Young, an outsized enthusiast with an impish grin and a heavy Bronx-Jewish accent. On pleasant Sundays, we'd take family strolls that almost always included a stop at Izzy's place, which was wall-to-wall with records and stringed instruments and had a little room in the back where musicians hung out. My first memories of Bob Dylan are from there, although they are dim, despite my later efforts to brighten them. (Only much later did I learn that Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg, late in 1963, in my uncle's apartment above the bookshop.) Nothing in that setting was anything I had sought out, or had any idea was important, or was going to become important....

By now [the 1990s] I was writing about the arts as well as about history, and over the next few years I published a few articles about Dylan and his work. Somebody, possibly from the old days, must have noticed, because in 2001 a phone call came from out of the blue asking if I would like to write something about a forthcoming album, called Love and Theft, for the official Dylan Web site. I agreed, with the provision that if I didn't like the album I wouldn't do it. Fortunately I loved what I heard, the people who had contacted me liked what they read, and it was the beginning of a beautiful set of friendships. I wrote more for the Web site over the ensuing months, and took the somewhat facetious title of its "historian-in-residence," a job nobody else seemed to be angling for, its home office suspended in cyberspace.

Sometime in 2002, plans took shape for an official release, as part of a retrospective series, of the tape made on that long-ago night I first heard Bob Dylan in concert. I knew nothing about the project; nor did Dylan's management know I'd attended the show, until, apropos of something I forget, I mentioned it to someone at Dylan's office. Soon after, the offer arrived to write the liner notes for what would become Bob Dylan Live 1964.

It was an intimidating assignment. When he hasn't written the notes himself, Dylan has always managed to land some exceptionally fine writers and experts, including Johnny Cash, Tony Glover, Pete Hamill, Nat Hentoff, Greil Marcus, and Tom Piazza. Could I even come close to their level? I also worried about what it would be like trying to describe a scene from so long ago without sounding either coy or pedantic. How much would I even remember?

The memory part turned out to be easy. Listening to the tape brought back in a rush the feel of the occasion -- the evening's warmth; the golden glow of the still new Philharmonic Hall in the still-under-construction Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; the intimate, sometimes giddy rapport that Dylan had with the audience (unimaginable in today's arena rock concerts); the special thrill of watching Joan Baez walk on stage during the second half of the show to sing some duets; and most of all, the pounding, modal shock of listening to a brand new song that Dylan was then calling "It's Alright Ma, It's Life And Life Only," a song I could only comprehend in shards, but whose images of tongues on fire and glowing plastic Christs were stunning....

[Mr. Wilentz was nominated for a Grammy for his notes. He says he "badly wanted to win." He did not.]

It hurt when the presenter read someone else's name, and I couldn't hide it. From the row in front of mine, an elegantly dressed woman, older than me, noticed my dejection and extended her hand.

"Don't you worry, honey, I didn't win myself, and ain't it great being here?"

I kissed her hand, suddenly feeling better, welcomed, if only for a weekend, into the ranks of hard-working musicians and artists.

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