by Sean Wilentz
Doubleday, 2010, 400 pp., $28.95
Is Bob Dylan the most important songwriter America has ever produced? Noted historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University certainly thinks so, as his newest book, Bob Dylan in America, makes clear from the outset. Wilentz has set out in effect to write a dual biography. The first one is of Dylan, and the second is one of America’s intertwined musical roots and traditions. His intention is thus to place “Dylan’s work in its wider historical and artistic contexts” and to reveal Dylan “as an artist who is deeply tuned to American history as well as American culture, and to the connections between the present and the past.” The underlying premise of this method is that Dylan could not have become Dylan anywhere else but America, and that America in the first decade of the 21st century would not be the America it is without Dylan.Wilentz’s ambition is bold in two ways. First, to devote a book to Dylan marks a departure for someone known for his professional work on early American history and more recent U.S. political history. It is true that Wilentz once wrote liner notes for one of Dylan’s bootleg compilations (for which he was nominated for a Grammy), and is considered the “official historian in residence at BobDylan.com”, the SONY Music website for Dylan. Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen gave Wilentz access to music, written material, unreleased demos and archival material of recording sessions, recording notes, outtakes rejected by Dylan for release—in short, material not available to most others writing about Dylan. But that does not make writing a superior biography easy. In fact, in some ways it makes it harder—for example, to criticize. But Wilentz does not duck the challenge. Despite his exclusive access, he is not averse to pointing out that after composing great works of art Dylan could also write material unworthy of his own standards. His 1971 single about the death of the revolutionary black militant George Jackson in a prison shootout, for example, carried “ellipses and sentimentalism” that “are the stuff of agitprop, and so is the song’s concluding grand cliché about the world being divided by prisoners and guards.”The second way that Bob Dylan in America is ambitious is in its method. It marks a departure from standard Dylan historiography. At last count, there were three major focused biographies, several books about Dylan and his circle, and well more than forty books about Dylan’s music and writing by noted authors such as Greil Marcus, Christopher B. Ricks, David Hajdu and one forthcoming from Ron Rosenbaum. Of these, some are about the making of particular albums, some focus on the music, and some on the lyrics. But Wilentz wants to go deeper. He wants to know what the tangled influences on Dylan “tell us about America” and how American cultural and musical history has in turn been shaped and reinvented by Dylan.It is an ambition further complicated by the fact that Dylan himself remains a work in progress. As he approaches his seventieth birthday on May 24, 2011, he continues to go on nearly non-stop tours of America and the world, filling giant arenas with audiences often composed of three generations of fans. (His vocal chords have seen better days, true, but some, completely missing the point, have been complaining about Dylan’s voice for fifty years.) Whenever media pundits claim his day has passed, Dylan proves them wrong, sometimes with a song commissioned for a film (like “Cross the Green Mountain” for the 2003 film Gods and Generals), sometimes with a new album of moving and eloquent ballads (like Modern Times in 2006 and Love and Theft in 2008); or more recently by becoming American music’s most interesting DJ. His weekly radio program for Sirius/XM Satellite radio, “Theme Time Radio Hour with Bob Dylan”, is arguably the most original program devoted to American music on the airwaves. In short, Dylan has become the iconic Protean minstrel, something that the label “songwriter” doesn’t come close to capturing. He is no easy quarry for any biographer.This is not a state of affairs anyone could have predicted when Dylan first came on the scene in 1963, as yet another vaguely political folksinger. Some thought he had the potential to inherit the mantle of Woody Guthrie, to be the new bard of the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. That seemed to be Dylan’s plan, too, insofar as he had one. Before he came to New York City, Dylan admitted, he was a “Woody Guthrie juke-box.” He had not yet written any songs himself, concentrating instead on affecting Guthrie’s Okie drawl and mastering his inflection and voice. When Dylan got to New York by way of Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago, he immediately trekked to Guthrie’s apartment in Coney Island. He sang to him at Guthrie’s friends’ home in New Jersey, where Woody went when released from a New York mental hospital for weekend visits, where he had been committed for suffering from the then-misunderstood Huntington’s Disease. And then Dylan’s fortunes dramatically changed when New York Times culture reporter Robert Shelton’s glowing review of his performance at Gerde’s Folk City led to both a record contract and instant national attention.Roughly speaking, this is how all of Dylan’s biographers set up their narratives—except Wilentz, who warns his reader early on that some parts of his book may seem to have little to do with Dylan as “they trace the origins and cultural importance of influential people or currents.” He begs our patience, and many readers will need to hand it over right away, for Wilentz opens his story not with Dylan or even Guthrie, but with Aaron Copland and the Popular Front culture of the 1930s. Wilentz reveals not only striking similarities in the musical paths traveled by Copland and Dylan; he argues for the probably unconscious influence of Copland upon the young man who grew up as Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota. As Wilentz writes, Copland’s music “impressed itself upon him. . . . Copland contributed to the blend of music and downtown left-wing politics that in time produced the folk-music revival which in turn helped produce Bob Dylan.”This is not the sort of interpretation one can prove. But it is probably no coincidence that after 9/11 Dylan often greeted waiting audiences with Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from Fanfare for the Common Man. And it is an interpretation that throws light on how America now sees itself. By mid-Cold War days the music that had emanated from the Popular Front had long since crossed over into the mainstream. When Copland denied that he had ever endorsed radical politics, people wanted to believe him, and so most did. In time, his works regaled Republicans at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. The ex-Red Copland had become “America’s composer” when he received the National Medal of Arts in 1986 from President Reagan. Like Copland, Dylan received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.It is this sort of deft blending of historical context and Dylan’s personal journey, with this sort of broader interpretive payoff, that Wilentz seeks to achieve throughout the book as he moves along in rough chronological fashion. After Copland, he heads for the Beat Generation.When Dylan arrived in New York City from the Midwest, he immersed himself in the broader culture not previously available to him. His red-diaper-baby girlfriend Suze Rotolo, whose own memoir of their affair, A Freewheelin’ Time, was published two years ago, broadened his horizons. She worked backstage at a production of Brecht on Brecht, an off-Broadway hit that featured Kurt Weil’s widow Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny.” The song stunned Dylan. It would become the basis for his own song “When the Ship Comes In”, which, Wilentz notes, showed Dylan “headed in directions that would one day lead him to write the strong but imitative song of prophecy.”Living in the Village, young Dylan couldn’t help but discover the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Both led their lives in the vicinity of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village, sharing at times the Gaslight Café for performances of either poetry or music. When Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, Ginsberg told people that he “wept with illuminated joy at what he sensed was a passing of the bohemian tradition to a younger generation.” As Dylan began to write more introspective music, his original folk and left-wing base rudely rejected him. The turn coincided musically with his move toward rock-and-roll. He would now write, Dylan told journalist Nat Hentoff, no more “finger pointing songs.” The folk world accused him of betrayal, and Irwin Silber, the communist editor of the folk magazine Sing Out!, branded him a sellout and a traitor.This same tension was reflected in Dylan’s famous Manchester, England 1966 concert, when he appeared with Levon and the Hawks (later renamed The Band). Over the electric guitars of Robbie Robertson and Dylan you can hear someone in the audience screaming “Judas!” Dylan admonishes the group to “play louder!” The most famous incident of audience fury, of course, took place at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan appeared with an electric band that included the legendary guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper. Pete Seeger was so angry that he sought to break the cables and kill the power. In his diary, Seeger bemoaned the fact that he had been a mentor to Dylan and had spread the word about his music.After the Beats, Wilentz concentrates, perhaps too much, on the making of Blonde on Blonde in Nashville. Then he leaps to the mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour and the song “Blind Willie McTell.” Wilentz continues with the story of two songs, “Delia” and “Lone Pilgrim”, then moves to the album Love and Theft, the 2001 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan’s 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous, and his memoir of that year. He ends with Dylan’s radio program and his own thoughts about Dylan’s release of his bootleg albums, the 2009 album Together Through Life, and the 2009 album Christmas in the Heart.Throughout this highly selective if not idiosyncratic course, Wilentz argues his case with excerpts and discussions of Dylan’s lyrics. He has this to say, for example, about “Chimes of Freedom”, in which “strong metaphors replace similes; sight and sound uncannily merge in the flashing chimes; . . . and a song of tender empathy as well, far outside the politics of left and right, black and white.” Similarly Wilentz points to how “Desolation Row” echoes T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with its “repeated invocations of death by water.” The song, he says, “mocks orthodoxies and confining loyalties of every kind—loyalties to religion, sex, science, romance, politics, medicine, money—which the singer has rejected.” Dylan, he argues on this basis, rejects both “straight-minded politics” and “modernist high art”, both of which he asserts will not prevent the collapse that is coming.Wilentz shows in chapter after chapter that for Dylan it is the songs alone and the words that matter, not his supposed stature as the voice of a generation, a guru, or a political or social theorist. As the bard himself once wrote, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” In his own memoir, too, Dylan wrote that, “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.” It was the media “that kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation.” Dylan thinks of himself as “a song and dance man” earning his keep by keeping his public satisfied. It’s a job, and Wilentz testifies to Dylan’s seriousness about it. He describes the many takes Dylan demands of his musicians to cut an album, including the all-night sessions during which Dylan rewrote his songs at the last minute. During the intensive work that produced Blonde on Blonde, an album Wilentz says “evokes William Blake’s song cycle of innocence and experience”, the second session began at six p.m. and ended after five in the morning. Dylan was so focused on perfecting “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that he never moved from the table the entire night, even to take a bathroom break, although he constantly drank Cokes and ate chocolate bars.Of course what Dylan has done is not just a job. He is an artist, too. One illustration Wilentz brings of that side of Dylan concerns painting lessons he once took from Norman Raeben, the youngest child of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Raeben one day found Dylan painting a vase, and like many a novice, using far too much blue: “Raeben looked at the canvas dismissively, telling Dylan that he was all tangled up in blue.” The art class was stunned when, a few days later, Dylan brought in the lyrics of a new song using the insult as a title. Of all of Dylan’s manifold trips through American music, the blues have had lasting influence, and they reappear in his music on a regular basis. Wilentz’s brilliant chapter on Blind Willie McTell, who was recorded by the Lomaxes in November 1940 in Atlanta, shows how McTell wrote songs about “meanness and joy on both sides of the color line.” As Wilentz explains, John Lomax, who was after political protest music in the blues mode, was disappointed. But Dylan understood McTell. In 1983, he wrote one of his great tributes, the song “Blind Willie McTell”, which in its powerful simplicity reveals the essence of the man who wrote the “Statesboro Blues.” Wilentz, interpreting through Dylan’s song, describes McTell as a songster, using a formulation that applies as well to Dylan:Working in a tradition that dated back to the vagabond musicians of the Reconstruction years, the songsters mastered all kinds of popular forms, from spirituals to the latest hits from Tin Pan Alley. They certainly played the blues, in part because the blues were popular, and in part because the name became attached, in the 1920s, to most black music that was not labeled jazz. But the songsters did not define themselves as bluesmen.
In that same vein, Wilentz gives us a Bob Dylan who is “still thinking about salvation, humanity and old songs”, but who has a sense that those songs—“which could keep the world’s power and greed at bay—were doomed.” Dylan, Wilentz believes, “might be one of the dwindling last generation of singers to remember and sing them and that all he can do in the face of that knowledge is to sing them anyway.” In his own music, Wilentz asserts that Dylan is a kind of archivist, consciously trying to keep alive what is the best of our musical history and traditions.Take away the jeremiad, and Wilentz reveals Dylan at the very least to be a major synthesizer of America’s rich musical tradition: “He took traditional folk music, the blues, rock and roll, country and western, black gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Tex-Mex borderlands music and more and bent them to his own poetic muse.” Dylan, Wilentz writes, “steals what he loves and loves what he steals.” He is the ultimate minstrel, juxtaposing all genres of music into a new and different whole, revealing itself perhaps especially in his Love and Theft, the very title of which comes from a book about blackface minstrelsy in the early 20th century.When it comes to showing what there is of America that made Dylan, Wilentz is at his best. He is less successful in evaluating how Dylan has remade America. Wilentz is right to point to “his own reinventions of folk music into realms that were every bit as mysterious and mythic as old traditional music, but in a pop sensibility of his own time that shocked folk purists.” But that is the least of it. Dylan has made the political personal in a new way. While acknowledging with regret that we “live in a political world”, he reminds us through his music that only the personal is universal. Dylan’s music universalizes what lies beneath politics in a poetical array of ironic, sardonic and introspective ballads. He moved from trite political finger-wagging to, as Wilentz puts it, “Blakean and biblical parable, time fractured songs of love and heartbreak, hellfire preaching” to the point where he has merged entertainment with a form of meditation. That’s what explains Dylan’s broad appeal, even beyond the United States. Wilentz’s never mentions it, but Dylan has had an enormous impact in Europe, especially in Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, and it’s not just because of his music as such. It’s because of what the music means.There is yet more that Wilentz has left unspoken. Dylan’s more than occasionally brilliant chord structures, whether performed with an electric or acoustic guitar or on a keyboard, manage somehow to retain the clarity and simplicity of sub-symphonic composition. Much like Copland, he has put artistic complexity into popular music. Together with those lyrics that express the emotional nuances we all recognize as so personal yet universal, Dylan has given American culture both a new kind of voice and American music a level of seriousness it never before had. He has enabled popular music to become serious about something even more important than politics: life. Not too shabby for a song and dance man.