Early in his extraordinary study Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz traces out for us the hipster geography of New York’s lower east side in the late-‘50s and early-‘60s. At that moment in time, on a single night in the Village, you could stop into Izzy Young’s book and record store on Macdougal Street, go a few doors down to the Gaslight and hear Beat poets, blues musicians and the bards of the folk revival, and then run into Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlonsky having late drinks at the Kettle of Fish. If the next day was Sunday, Pete Seeger, the Weaver’s and Woody Guthrie’s protégé Ramblin’ Jack Elliot would be playing for free in Washington Square.
Bob Dylan was there by January of 1961, opening for John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s on Fourth Street West. Wilentz notes that Dylan once ran into Theolonious Monk, off-hours, at one of the villages many clubs. “I’m playing folk music up the street,” the young Dylan said. “We all play folk music” the jazz master responded.
We all play folk music. This central idea drives this book’s compelling narrative. In Wilentz’s view, Dylan became a sacred intersection for the varying paths of populist Americana, a hierophant of the folk spirit that has included everything and everyone from Walt Whitman’s liturgy of American democracy to Jack Kerouac’s “sounds of matching boxcars” to Aaron Copland’s hymns in praise of the common man and the democratic landscape. Dylan found the real America, before that term had been abused by right-wing ideologues seeking to become puppet-masters to angry mobs.
Bob Dylan in America collages all of these elements, tracing Dylan’s career by tracing his influences. This has been done before, but with Wilentz the world around, and inside the head of, Bob Dylan becomes an aperture into the deeper meaning of the American experience. Bluegrass music, American film, work songs and folk ballads, gospel preachers, and carnival barkers all jostle in Dylan’s vision, a vision of America he both creates and is created by.
Wilentz is perhaps the most important living American historian, writing key works on 19th century American history including Chants Democratic, a study of working class culture and politics in 19th century New York City, the magisterial Rise of American Democracy, and numerous other works (including his Age of Reagan that is perhaps the most detailed history of the last third of the twentieth century available). He is also a devoted fan of the work of Bob Dylan and the author of the liner notes for the 2003 release of Dylan’s Bootleg Series 6, insightful and evocative reflections on Dylan’s 1964 concert that snagged Wilentz a Grammy nomination.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Wilentz’s father ran the Village’s Eighth Street Bookstore, a legendary gathering-hearth for Beats and Bards in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The author has childhood tales to tell about Dylan and the world he came out of though he resists the temptation to turn his study into a memoir in disguise. Name-dropping remains at a minimum even as its clear the author has plenty of names to drop.
Given Wilentz’s record in the world of historical scholarship, you might be afraid that this work, while filled with good information, will be written in dry academese. You can be excused if you think this, given that some scholarly writing about music and performance can be so densely theoretical as to be unreadable. However there are no such concerns here. In fact, Wilentz’s gorgeous narrative style is so evocative that it makes even his discussion of rather standard interpretations of Dylan’s work a rediscovery.
A case in point is his description of Dylan’s enigmatic “Desolation Row” release in 1965. Wilentz explores some of the standard interpretations of the lyrics, noting its relationship to Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the accepted comparisons to Ellot’s The Wasteland. Wilentz makes this discussion come alive with his description of the song as “a kind of carnival…of fragments, shards of a civilization that has gone to pieces.” He captures the heart of Dylan’s encoded prophecies and makes you want to go listen to them over and over again.
Throughout the work, Wilentz shows an unfailing ability to synthesize his discussion of Dylan’s music with the best history lesson you are likely to ever get on left-wing populist art and thought. He surely and deftly examines the influence of figures as diverse as Copland to Blind Willie McTell on, not just Dylan’s music, but on the America he sought to evoke.
The 2001 Love and Theft album, in my opinion the best Dylan album since Highway 61 Revisited, comes to represent for Wilentz Dylan’s role as chanter and mediator of the American sacred. The album (whose title may be borrowed from cultural historian Eric Lott’s book about blackface minstrelsy) slips between musical styles and eras with grandmaster of the Delta blues Charley Patton as what Wilentz calls “presiding shade.” Its an odyssey that contains, we learn with the author as our guide, allusions to everything from LA hot rod music, to Paul Robeson, to obscure speeches by Abraham Lincoln, to opera, to Shakespeare… the lists goes on and on, with allusions within allusions.
Wilentz uses Love and Theft as his primary example for his argument that Dylan is a kind of “modern minstrel,” a songster who by borrowing and intermingling styles and themes spins narratives both beyond time and space that are also grounded in specific geographies; the Delta with high water everywhere, or atop a Manhattan hotel or in Terre Haute Indiana or rolling along desert flats in a Cadillac. Bob Dylan, like his America, contains multitudes.
Wilentz has managed to write both the most important book on American history and the most important book on American music in recent memory. This is not to say that the work is not without its interpretive flaws. In Wilentz’s discussion of Dylan and protest music, he rather quickly dismisses the ’71 release “George Jackson”, an angry tune about the death of an African American Marxist in prison. Wilentz calls it” a trifle and may even be worse than a trifle.”
Although most Dylan fans would agree that its at best a minor song in Dylan’s vast catalog, Wilentz goes after it in rather overheated tones, calling it “the stuff of agitprop” that can sound “almost ghoulish.” Oddly, he admits that Dylan is obviously interested in the broadly human dimensions while also insisting that its pure romanticized left-wing propaganda. It seems to me its either one or the other, a pallid political tract or a meditation on human tragedy. Even Bob Dylan can’t pull off both.
This small issue aside, this book is required reading for anyone seeking to understand American history and American music. Indeed, Wilentz has turned a biography of a great American musician into an exploration of the mythic narratives of America and, like the man whose work he studies, has become something of a sacred bard himself.