The '60s Trap: Why critics ignore the rest of Bob Dylan's career

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No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's documentary about Bob Dylan's early years, is but the latest item in a flood tide of Dylanalia that, in trying to pay due homage to America's most important rock artist, constricts his four-decade career to its first six years.

Something is happening here. To be sure, few Dylanologists would deny that, except for Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan created his very best music between 1965 (the year of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) and 1967 (when he issued John Wesley Harding and recorded The Basement Tapes). Nonetheless, despite subsequent droughts and misfires, Dylan has since turned out some brilliant albums. So, why have we been so quick to ignore the bulk of his career?

One part of the answer is that Dylan shares a problem with the 1960s as a whole: Scholarship and popular commentary alike are shaped by the baby boomers who lived through the period and have never quite transcended their own youthful enthusiasms. As Rick Perlstein noted in Lingua Franca several years ago, the preponderance of boomers in the historical profession—and, he might have added, in the culture overall—has made it hard for younger voices to gain a hearing for ideas that argue with the prevailing, familiar tale of the decade: Rebellious student youth challenges the conformity of establishment liberalism. Although some boomer accounts of the decade, such as Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets, remain as indispensable to studying the politics of the era as the '60s-centered writings of Christopher Ricks and Greil Marcus are to studying Dylan, they don't tell the full story.

But the problem isn't just that boomers are influential. Even historians of the post-boomer generation (i.e., mine) don't usually assume deeply critical attitudes toward the 1960s. Although a few historians have recently done admirable spadework in such new research areas as how conservatism in these years gained strength (as the news media were looking the other way) and the international dimension of the youth revolt, such efforts are not the norm. Revisionist scholarship about the student left, for example, tends to be minor and esoteric—contesting, say, precisely which social groups or political organizations formed the center of the era's social activism.

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