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The Significant Insight of ‘Bob Dylan in America’

Sean Wilentz’s revealing analysis of a vital songwriter

Nov. 8, 2010
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Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday) is a significant work that connects Dylan’s narrative shift from American oral tradition song to literary text. It is also a definitive social and political history regarding what is buried deep in Dylan’s songs. The research and writing is impeccable, and we at long last have a serious study of Dylan’s artistic accomplishment and an explanation of why his work was and still is so culturally vital.

Wilentz contributed Grammy-nominated liner notes to Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” release of his 1964 New York Philharmonic Hall concert, which Wilentz attended when he was 13 years old. Allen Ginsberg lived above the 8th Street Bookshop in 1963, owned by Wilentz’s uncle and father, and stayed with the Wilentz family for a time. Now a history professor at Princeton, Wilentz is the historian for Columbia Records’ official Dylan website. The combination of the author’s uncommon personal closeness and professional distance provides him with tremendous insight into all things Dylan and Ginsberg.

The Ginsberg connection serves as a fulcrum for the book’s ability to fathom the way Dylan’s lyrics drew from both oral tradition and literature from the early ’60s to the present. Wilentz offers important examples of pre- and post-Ginsberg Dylan songs and it is clear that “in 1964 and 1965, Ginsberg and Dylan influenced each other as both of them recast their public images and their art.”

Ginsberg, of course, retained and even enhanced his standing as a cultural avatar, but he wanted to make the leap into rock ’n’ roll music and could not; instead, he passed the pen to Dylan as the so-called poet of rock. Where the Beats failed to reach the masses by reading next to jazz, Dylan succeeded by rendering lyrics heard within a new rock sound. With the rise of Dylan, future generations would turn to recordings, not books, for universal yet immediate truths.

In 1965 when Dylan recorded Highway 61 Revisited, the album that culturally redefined poetry and changed the literary mind-set of academia, Jack Kerouac published Desolation Angels, “his last great novel of his experiences inside the Beat generation circle … In early August, Dylan recorded ‘Desolation Row’ for his sixth album…and the correspondences with Kerouac…were too exact to be coincidental.” Wilentz adds that many verbatim and inferred references to the novel are in the lyrics of the “Desolation Row” from Highway 61. Also, the ambience of “Desolation Row,” cleverly revealed through Wilentz’s scholarship, brings narrative and music together to create more than a literary work and so much more than any song that previously existed in any category but the new one Dylan creates: With its “swirling, Tex-Mex acoustic guitar run, played by the visiting Nashville sideman Charlie McCoy,” the environment of Mexico where Kerouac’s novel is set becomes a tactile mediation. “‘Desolation Row’ presents…shards of a civilization that has gone to pieces, in a modernist tradition that runs from Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’to Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’”

With the unusual alacrity of both a literary and a music critic, Wilentz goes through the recording process, musicians and literary influences of the great and most compelling album in rock ’n’ roll history for its severe and consistent narrative shift, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and applies his critical acumen to all that follows right up to and including the recent Christmas in the Heart album. The author fathoms the historical context in every case, down to Dylan’s relationship with Bing Crosby. Wilentz has done his homework. We benefit from it and now must do our own, finally correcting our sense of rock music history based on facts—and no longer on what we like or dislike.


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