June 18, 2013
The Dylan in All of Us
Posted on Sep 10, 2010
By Allen Barra
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 Greil 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 his book on Dylan, 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 upfront, “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 had 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 had 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 fearsome apparition.”)
In “The 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, Dylan 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”), 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. When that exploration goes into foreign territory, he requests the reader’s indulgence, and asks that he or she “hang on during all of these chapters, assured that the connections to Bob Dylan will be revealed soon enough.” OK, Prof—you got it.
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