Sean Wilentz's 'Bob Dylan in America,' reviewed by Michael S. Roth

By Michael S. Roth
Sunday, September 5, 2010; B06


By Sean Wilentz

Doubleday. 390 pp. $28.95

T he American historian Sean Wilentz begins his assessment of Bob Dylan by linking him to the classical American composer Aaron Copland, a signal that this book is not just another biography of the chameleon folkie-rock-star-poet-troubadour. Wilentz doesn't rehash reactions to Dylan going electric. Nor does "Bob Dylan in America" uncover a secret code to explain the famously cryptic lyrics of a man who has been surprising and engaging audiences for more than 50 years. Rather, Wilentz has written a book at once deeply felt and historically layered that shows how Dylan's artistic practice is embedded in and responsive to powerful but subtle currents of American culture.

Copland drew on all sorts of music, including folk songs, cowboy tunes and hymns, as he developed an eclectic modernism. He mined the country's musical ore, and that is probably the most significant connection to Dylan's practice. Dylan's uncanny ability to tune into the music of America has allowed him not only to re-invent himself, but also to re-animate aspects of our musical past in ways that make them fresh and compelling.

The young Dylan who emerges early in the book was as eager to respond to the power of the Beat writers as he was to soak up the folk revival. "I came out of the wilderness," he wrote much later, "and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd." If Dylan wasn't "a creature void of form," as he wrote in the song "Shelter from the Storm," he was very much alive to the cultural energy around him and started exploring the sources of that energy in libraries and record stores, in archives and in the songs passed along from performer to performer.

At the center of "Bob Dylan in America" are chapters on the making of "Blonde on Blonde" in 1966 and on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975. The revolutionary "Blonde on Blonde" double album was a product of collaboration with his touring band, the Hawks (the core members became the Band) and with a group of Nashville musicians who achieved "the sound of 3 a.m." -- that "wild mercury sound." Dylan veered from traditional blues to what he called "religious carnival music." Songs such as "Just Like a Woman" and "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" may to some sound angry or cynical, but Wilentz hears instead "William Blake's song cycle of innocence and experience." He calls "Blonde on Blonde" "a disillusioned but seriously hopeful work of art," an album of visions and pledges, of passionate blues and quiet waiting for a sad-eyed lady.

The Dylan of the mid-1970s was in a very different place from the young man who made "Blonde on Blonde." He continued to record in Nashville, exploring country music and writing songs that were by turns densely allegorical and simply direct. In New York he studied with the painter Norman Raeben, whom he credited with helping him "see things plain" and escape a linear sense of time. Wilentz notes that Dylan explored "the artistic possibilities of pulling together past, present, and future, as if they were of a piece." This was liberating for the artist, and it was decisive for the album "Blood on the Tracks" and almost everything that came afterward. In the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan again sang the old tunes with Joan Baez, but he also performed new work alongside Scarlet Rivera on the electric violin. The surprising arrangements of early songs sparkled, and he performed new material with an honesty and energy that defied all expectations. Like Wilentz, I saw some of those concerts, and the vitality of the performances, their combinations of carnival and confession, is still a vivid memory for me.

In the second half of the book, Wilentz achieves the payoff for breaking away from a linear sense of time -- for Dylan, and for himself as a historian. The chapters that explore the cultural resonance of the songs "Blind Willie McTell" and "Delia" are gems of thick description, unpacking lyrical associations and discovering the heartaches, crimes and joys of people whose stories might have remained buried in the past. Wilentz shows how Dylan, a "worn out star" by the 1980s, pulled himself and his art together by learning to "reinhabit worlds that had completely disappeared." What some simple-minded (or simply mean-spirited) commentators have recently called plagiarism, Dylan has aptly dubbed "love and theft." A contemporary minstrel or "songster," he "steals what he loves and loves what he steals," as with his riff on Jay Gatsby: "She say, 'You can't repeat the past.' I say, 'You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can.' " The songwriter's alchemical methods have transformed cultural and personal memory into meaningful, rooted, contemporary music. The historian concludes that Dylan "reclaims the present by reclaiming the past," and in this inventive, informative book Wilentz has done much the same.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.

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