Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Review: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Bob Dylan in America is the book Dylan fans have long been waiting and it is long overdue.  Finally, a distinguished American historian, has placed Dylan within the context of American history.  Other cultural critics, Griel Marcus, in particular, have written first rate books about Dylan, but Wilentz has written something more accessible.  It is a work of popular history in the best sense of the term.

In each chapter Wilentz traces the origins of the cultural influences on Dylan that span all the eras of American history - starting with Aaron Copeland.  Copeland's mixing of classical with folk music marked a precursor to Dylan who blended high and low art.  Although often considered one of the primary icons of the 1960s, Wilentz makes it clear Dylan is child of the 1940s and 1950s.  The Beat literature of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac were important influences with their electrifying poetry that rocked 1950s America.  Dylan also idolized Woody Guthrie and imitated him early in his career, moved on from him, but the spirit of Woody was always there.  Those sources, however, are only scratching the surface. 

The book's best chapter is on the making of Blonde on Blonde (1966), an example of the multitude of influences on Dylan, but also attests to his own genius.  Recorded in 1965-66, Dylan informed his producer Bob Johnston he wanted "that thin wild mercury sound."  In the summer of 1965 Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (arguably his best ever) shattered the conventions of rock music and scored a top ten single with "Like a Rolling Stone."  He spent the rest of 1965 touring with the Hawks (a.k.a. The Band) and wrote what became Blonde on Blonde.  His life was moving at a frenetic pace and yet he managed to songs that were "meditations on desire, frailty, promises, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, connections missed, paranoia, and transcendent beauty,"  The sound of the album mixed elements of Chicago blues, folk, British pop, 1950s rock - all the while sounding completely original.  The sessions in New York with the band were disappointing so at the suggestion of Johnson, Dylan recorded in Nashville with seasoned country musicians.  The results were a spellbinding double album with surreal songs that literally sounded like it was 3AM.  Lyrics like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" marked new heights for Dylan. 

Other parts of his career are given detailed analysis as well, especially Dylan's two folk albums of the early 1990s: Good As I've Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which offered reinterpretations of now forgotten folk songs rooted in American history.  Dylan recent triumphs, most notably Love and Theft (2001), helped mold Dylan's new perona as a world weary prophet.  His recent albums draw on the rich history of American music, of which his recent Christmas album is a perfect example. At 70, Dylan also draws much controversy over the alleged plagiarism in his songwriting.  Wilentz defends these charges by arguing folk artists steal from each other - it is an old tradition. 

All the chapters are strong on analyzing the evolution of Dylan's art, but little is learned about the man himself.  But this is a fine work of scholarship on a crucial figure of postwar America.  Hopefully, this book will launch a new wave of Dylan studies with a more historical approach.

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