Sean Wilentz on Bob Dylan? What’s next—David McCulloch on Bruce Springsteen? Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Rolling Stones? Garry Wills on Madonna? You have every right to pick up Bob Dylan in America with skepticism—or at least you would if you didn’t know how deep Wilentz’s background in traditional American music goes.
Given the seriousness and pretension with which so many rock critics write about their favorite artists, you might expect an academician to bury Dylan beneath mounds of stentorian prose. But Wilentz is no ordinary academic. For one thing, along with Griel Marcus, he edited The Rose and The Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad. For another, he was practically born into the subject. His father, Elias, ran the legendary Eighth Bookshop in Greenwich Village, a store, he says, “that helped nurture the Beat poets of the 1950s and the folk revivalists of the early 1960s.” (Elias also edited The Beat Scene, one of the earliest anthologies of Beat poetry.)
Sean Wilentz is surely the least pompous and most accessible of great American historians, a writer who can make 600 pages on The Age of Reagan into beach reading. In BDIA, he succeeds in casting the same analytical eye on a cultural icon that he did on political figures such as Jefferson and Jackson, and he does it with the enthusiasm of a fan.
“There is plenty of fascinating commentary on Dylan’s songs,” he tells us up front, “and there are several informative biographies. But even the best of these books do not contain all of what I wanted to know about Dylan’s music and the strains in American life that have provoked and informed it. I have never been interested in simply tracking down and listing the songs and recordings that influenced Dylan ... I have instead been curious about when, how and why Dylan picked up certain forerunners, as well as certain of his own contemporaries, about the milieu in which those influences lived and labored ...”
As someone who has perused much or most of the literature Wilentz refers to, I can testify that he does the best job to date of pulling together the cultural and political strands and weaving them into the big picture: “Anyone interested in appreciating Dylan’s body of work must face the challenge of owning its paradoxical and unstable combination of tradition and defiance.” Has Dylan, over the decades, contradicted himself? Very well then, he has contradicted himself. Part of his strength has always been in his ability to accept and reflect on those contradictions.
No other popular American artist has pulled so many ideas out of left field, so it’s fitting that Wilentz goes even farther into left field—way, way over the outfield fence—to track Dylan’s antecedents.
No matter how far Wilentz seems to stray, though, he always manages to zero back in on his subject, as if he has a homing device. In a sense, he does—a book that gives him an advantage over most writers of Dylan books, Dylan’s own Chronicles Volume One, published in 2004. Chronicles knocked Dylan fans for a loop and critics back on their heels with its lucid, charming and detailed exploration of the artist’s own mind; never before had a major figure in American popular music gone to such lengths to explain himself and demystify his own public image, paying homage to all the influences of his formative years—Woody Guthrie, of course, Hank Williams, and the almost mythical Delta blues singer Robert Johnson. (Listening to him, said Dylan, “It felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fiercesome apparition.”)
In Chronicles Dylan singled out heroes, inspirations such as Roy Orbison (“He sang like a professional criminal”), Ricky Nelson (“I’d always felt kin to him”), Mickey Rourke (“He could break your heart with a look”), and—and this was nearly mind-blowing, coming from the man who wrote “Master of War” and “The Times They Are a Changin’”—the Chairman of The Board. When Frank Sinatra sang “Ebb Tide,” Dylan said, “I could hear everything in his voice—death, God, and the universe ...”
For the first time in his career, he opened up and told fans what he loved, from family life (“Little League games, birthday parties, taking my kids to school, camping trips, boating, rafting ...”), New Orleans (“Everything in New Orleans is a good idea ... the Devil comes here and sighs”), Mickey Rourke’s acting (“He could break your heart with a look”), Pete Maravich playing basketball (“He was something to see ... the holy terror of the basketball world”), and advice from his father (“Even if you don’t have all the things you want, be grateful for the things that you don’t have and don’t want”).
Most of all, he explained his art with greater simplicity and insight than any critic had ever done. “What I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, using catch phrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before.”
Before Chronicles Volume One, Dylan had pretty much been pigeonholed by cultural commentators as a flash point for the counterculture movement, a symbol of rebelliousness and defiance of authority. Of course, he was these things, and so he remains. But the book, with its good humor and homey recitations of simple pleasures, forced a great many to consider Dylan and his work from a new viewpoint, namely the ways in which his own experiences connected with that of so many Americans of all kinds.
Wilentz is the first writer to pay Bob Dylan the honor of taking him at his word, and Chronicles Volume One provides him with a trusty framework and touchstone for his own exploration of Dylan. Some of those explorations, to be sure, go pretty far afield. “I ask,” he writes, “for the reader’s indulgence to hang on during all of these chapters, assured that the connections to Bob Dylan will be revealed soon enough.” Okay, Prof—you got it.
The first chapter is a 29-page essay on the connection between Aaron Copland and Dylan. Yes, you heard that right, and yes, you will have to allow Wilentz the indulgence he requests. How exactly does the composer of “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid” connect with the composer of “Positively Fourth Street”? The connection which Wilentz makes seems convoluted, but, in the end, accurate: Copland’s “orchestral work raises some of the same conundrums that Dylan’s songs do— about art and politics, simplicity and difficulty, compromise and genius, love and theft.” Dylan “began his musical writing in Guthrie-esque style and then entered into every other folk-music style he could lay his hands on. Copland, by contrast, was first inspired to become a composer by the Polish composer, pianist and national patriot Ignacy Paderewski ... Still, Copland’s musical world in 1930s New York led, directly and indirectly, to Dylan’s in 1960s New York. And Copland’s amalgamating art, in time built partly out of old cowboy ballads and mountain fiddle tunes, anticipated Dylan’s in ways that helped make sense of both men’s achievements.”
Copland didn’t so much influence Dylan directly as he did, through his left wing politics and synthesis of American musical styles, prepare a social and intellectual climate in the early 1950s Village that Dylan would move to and thrive in. He is merely the first of several confluent cultural strains that Wilentz charts to Dylan’s music: Woody Guthrie and Little Richard, of course, whom Dylan listened to and loved while growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota; later, the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; and “the French guys,” as Dylan put it, “Rimbaud and Francois Villon.” Musically, Dylan was a receptor, drawing on everything he heard while living in the Village. And he heard plenty. Far more eclectic than the urban folk singers he hung out and played with, Dylan absorbed everything from jazz to the Irish rebel ballads of the Clancy Brothers. Despite the disdain in which electric music was held by folk music purists, Dylan’s evolution into a rock star was inevitable.
Bob Dylan in America is almost as remarkable for what it isn’t as for what it is. The literature available on Dylan is more voluminous than that on any other figure in popular music (unless one includes the tons of fanzines and supermarket tabloids on Elvis). The challenge of finding something new to say on Dylan must have seemed daunting, even to the man who, in The Rise of American Democracy, found, in 800 pages, a way to make everything from the shot heard round the world to Lincoln seem fresh, and Wilentz’s patience and persistence, combined with a fan’s enthusiasm, has paid off.
Most critical writing on Dylan has suggested that somehow his rise in the early and mid-1960s “saved” rock’n’roll (with an assist from the Beatles and the ensuing wave of British rockers). Nonsense. The early sixties were the time of Sam Cooke and Gene Pitney and Dion and the Shirelles and the Beach Boys and the Drifters and Del Shannon; of the great Jackie Wilson, of producer Phil Spector’s stable of artists, and of early Motown; of “Louie, Louie” and “It’s My Party” and “The Wanderers” and “Twist and Shout.” There was nothing wrong with early 1960s rock’n’roll. It was a richer and more varied music than it was the day Buddy Holly died in 1959. Dylan and the Beatles didn’t “save” anything.
What Dylan and the Beatles (and later the Dylan-influenced Beatles and the Beatles-influenced Dylan) did was to set the stage for a music that could be appreciated by older, college kids who had come of age on Buddy Holly and wanted a music that preserved something in that sound while reflecting the more complex universe they now lived in. Dylan didn’t save rock’n’roll; it was rock’n’roll that saved him from a lifetime of godawful humorless “protest” music by throwing him a lifeline back to rock’s roots—the blues, hillbilly, jug band, and medicine show music from which it had evolved.
In the revelatory words of rock writer Lester Bangs, Dylan “wanted to be Elvis, but there was an opening for Woody Guthrie, so he took it.” In the end, in large part because he was able to bridge the gap between Woody and Elvis, Dylan became far more complex and vital than either. Moreover, unlike Guthrie or Presley or almost anyone else in American popular music—with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen—Dylan has shown that he can absorb new influences and continue to recreate himself.
In tracing the impact on Dylan of such diverse sources as Marcel Carne’s 1945 classic film Children of Paradise and the obscure black singer guitarist Blind Willie McTell, Wilentz does just about his best work, and in the process rescues Dylan from the persistent and ridiculous charge that he is some kind of cultural plagiarist. Dylan “has never simply been a brilliant, deeply knowledgeable opportunistic folkie; neither has he been, either legally or spiritually, a plagiarist, although some rivals have accused him of plagiarism. He has been a minstrel, or has worked in the same tradition as the minstrels (a tradition that includes vaudeville as well as the Southern songster performers, among them Blind Willie McTell)—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.”
Bob Dylan in America could just as easily have been titled “America in Bob Dylan” or perhaps “The Bob Dylan in All of Us.” No other book explains how and why Dylan became, for the last two generations, the avatar of an America only dimly remembered but still strongly felt.
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, American Heritage and The Los Angeles Times.