Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley, Review of Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010)

Jan 2, 2011 5:03 pm

Ron Briley, Review of Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010)

Bob Dylan in America may not be exactly what one expects from distinguished Princeton history professor, Sean Wilentz, perhaps best known for his examination of Jacksonian democracy. Rather than a history of the political milieu influencing and reflecting Dylan’s music, Wilentz’s volume is cultural history drawing upon the author’s extensive knowledge of American music as well as personal connections with Dylan’s oeuvre from a family bookstore in Greenwich Village to attendance at Dylan concerts and the composition of album liner notes. Bob Dylan in America demonstrates that Wilentz is a fine musicologist as well as historian.
Wilentz credits the leftist politics of the Popular Front and the folk music of the 1930s and 1940s, along with the Beat movement of the 1950s, with creating Dylan’s world view. Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie is well documented, and Wilentz eschews traveling this familiar road. Instead, Wilentz focuses upon the music of Aaron Copland to demonstrate the influence of Popular Front culture upon the folk music revival of the early 1960s which featured the music of Bob Dylan. Although there is little direct evidence of Copland influencing the young Dylan, Wilentz argues that the classical composer incorporated folk and cowboy themes into such compositions as Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid, suggesting the type of cultural and musical appropriation which characterizes Dylan’s approach to song writing.
Dylan was also a product of the 1950s Beat generation and poet Allen Ginsberg with whom the musician enjoyed a personal relationship. Wilentz argues that the Beat experimentation with language and a Bohemian lifestyle appealed to Dylan and encouraged his break with the orthodoxy of leftist politics. Thus, Wilentz concludes that Dylan “found his way out of the limitations of the folk revival, having reawakened to Beat literary practice and sensibilities and absorbed them into his electrical music” (83).
Wilentz is, accordingly, not a Dylan admirer who bemoans the musician’s abandonment of politics and topical songs in the mid 1960s as he shifted from acoustic guitar to amplified rock and roll. In fact, Wilentz devotes little attention to the artist’s early folk days; focusing instead upon the recording of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album in 1965 and 1966. In describing this epic double album, Wilentz writes, “The songs are rich meditations on desire, frailty, promise, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, missed connections, paranoia, and transcendent beauty—in short, the lures and snares of love, stock themes of rock and pop music, but written with a powerful literary imagination and played out in a pop netherworld” (106). Wilentz concludes that by the mid 1960s Dylan had no desire to be the voice of a generation. Instead of being a political theorist or activist, it was the songs with their words and images that mattered. The increasingly enigmatic Dylan followed the commercial and artistic success of Blonde on Blonde by retreating into domestic life in Woodstock, New York while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident.
Wilentz next picks up the story of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue which toured America in 1975 and 1976. While the Revue featured “The Ballad of the Hurricane,” a topical song protesting the wrongful conviction of boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder, Wilentz is more drawn to the Revue’s celebration of American traditions found in traveling circuses and carnivals to which Dylan was attracted as a boy. Wilentz also describes the influence on Dylan and the Revue of such diverse sources as the artist Norman Raeben, whom Dylan credits with helping him to see and do consciously what he unconsciously felt, and the 1945 French film Children of Paradise, which inspired Dylan’s poorly received feature film of the tour, Renaldo and Clara.
While the Revue’s themes of ambiguity and the American carnival past were too obscure for most observers, Wilentz insists that in the 1980s Dylan found more traditional musical inspiration in the songs of Blind Willie McTell, a Southern blues musician of the 1930s and 1940s. This influence, however, did not reach fruition until the 1990s as Dylan was somewhat distracted by personal crisis and his Christian phase which culminated in the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Wilentz notes that Dylan’s gospel tours showed some similarities with the Rolling Thunder Revue; except the traveling medicine show/carnival was replaced by a tent show revival with Dylan as the hellfire and brimstone preacher. While this didactic phase of Dylan’s Christian conversion proved to be short lived, Wilentz argues that religious imagery and a belief in redemption remained essential elements of Dylan’s music.
After a germinating period in the 1980s, the blues and religious influences of artists such as Blind Willie McTell culminated in what Wilentz and other critics perceive as some of Dylan’s best work beginning in 1992 with the album, Good as I Been to You. The commercial and critical success of this album was followed by such acclaimed recordings as World Gone Wrong (1993), Time Out of Mind (1997), and Love and Theft (2001). Wilentz devotes considerable space to tracing the origins of the traditional songs which Dylan refashioned in the 1990s, such as “Frankie and Albert,” “Delia,” and “The Lone Pilgrim.” Thus, Wilentz views Dylan’s more recent work as reflecting the minstrel tradition of “copying other people’s mannerisms and melodies and lyrics and utterly transforming them and making them his own, a form of larceny that is as American as apple pie, and cherry, pumpkin, and plum pie, too” (266). Nevertheless, this tradition, which some term the folk process, has subjected Dylan to allegations of plagiarism. Wilentz defends Dylan, maintaining that with his diverse reading interests, including American history, and musical knowledge, the artist draws upon history and culture to conjure new meanings and interpretations. Wilentz’s interpretation is similar to that of noted music critic Greil Marcus in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings, 1968-2010 (New York: Public Affairs, 2010). Accordingly, Wilentz seems to suggest that Dylan’s genius reflects his attachment to the historical evolution of American music.
And Dylan continues to perform this role as we move into the twenty-first century. Wilentz applauds the insights provided by Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Volume I (2004), writing, “The entire book is informative as well as grateful, but I find the first two chapters and the last the most compelling, portraying a young artist, who, he now writes, felt destiny looking straight at him and nobody else, but who also entered a universe of archaic yet living American archetypes from which, he says, all his songs then sprang” (297). Wilentz even has some positive things to say about Dylan’s disappointing 2003 theatrical film, Masked and Anonymous, suggesting that the picture serves as a “pop sensibility in an American tradition of high allegory” rather than as a vanity project for Dylan. Dylan’s historical talents, however, Wilentz argues, are best employed in his satellite radio program, Theme Time Radio Hour, where the musician draws upon American musical traditions and influences as diverse as gospel, blues, ballads, country, Broadway, pop, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra to trace themes ranging from baseball to love. Wilentz also praises Dylan’s most recent albums, Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2008), although he observes that the latter, with its emphasis upon dance rather than lyrics, may disappoint some university English departments.
While Bob Dylan in America may not be the historical work some readers expect from Wilentz, the historian demonstrates an impressive depth of knowledge regarding American music and Dylan—in fact, those uninitiated in the life and music of Dylan might find the book somewhat confusing. While not everyone may share Wilentz’s enthusiasm for Dylan, the historian makes a strong case for taking Dylan seriously; suggesting that the singer’s historical investigation into traditional music provides important insights into the American experience.

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