Dec 9, 2013
The Dylan in All of Us
Posted on Sep 10, 2010
By Allen Barra
The first chapter is a 29-page essay on the connection between Aaron Copland and Dylan. Yes, you read 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 ... 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, Minn.; 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 Democracy in America,” 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 ’60s 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. It was rock ’n’ roll that saved Dylan from a lifetime of god-awful 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 re-create 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.
Allen Barra is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post Book World, and Bookforum and a contributing writer for American Heritage and the Village Voice. His latest book, “Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark,” was released in July by W.W. Norton & Co.
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