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Book Review: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

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When a skilled historian and music fan decides to write about Bob Dylan’s music, he provides an intensive study of influences and source materials that covers quantities of music and literature.

Sean Wilentz has followed Dylan’s music since he first saw him play in Greenwich Village near the beginning of Dylan’s career, in 1963. Later, as a historian, he quickly realized that Dylan soaks up and uses influences like a sponge. Therefore, he wrote Bob Dylan in America.

The title is significant, because by using Dylan as a central topic, Wilentz is able to discuss many subjects, beginning with the communist-influenced American Popular Front that inspired the music of Aaron Copland in the 1930’s and the folksingera of the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60’s, when Dylan wrote his earnest protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

He then moves to the influence of the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, on Dylan’s music, and from there, to country and western, black-face minstrel music, blues, shape-note music, gospel, early rock and roll, and even Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Literature influenced Dylan, too, from The Bible to Ovid to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Wilentz explores Dylan’s fascination with the Civil War and his extensive reading in the New York Public Library of whatever caught his interest, much of which later turned up in some expression or character in one or more songs.

The book also covers Dylan himself, especially the public Dylan who constantly has re-invented himself on stage, sometimes literally wearing wigs, costumes, and even masks to create new personas in performance. It delves into the recordings as well, with descriptions of the backup musicians and the recording sessions and how they affected the sound and the message of the music.

Since the book covers all of Dylan’s work up to and including Christmas in the Heart in 2009 (with a coda in this edition that brings Wilentz’s personal connection with the study of Dylan and his music up to May 2011,) it is inclusive of 50 years of Dylan in America, and 80 years and more of American music, history, politics and literature centered around that musical shaman and chameleon, generally acknowledged the greatest songwriter of his generation, Bob Dylan.

“Open to artistic inspiration anywhere he found it,” Wilentz writes near the end of the book,”Dylan was not so much a sponge (though he has always absorbed prodigious amounts) as an alchemist,taking common materials and creating new art. Nothing that came within his field of vision escaped him: 1930s French films, 1850s minstrel songs,the works of Shakespeare, Dolly Parton, Saint John of Patmos,Muddy Waters-anything of beauty, no matter how terrible,became something to seize on and make his own.”

And that is the essence of this book: what Dylan seized upon and how he made it his, and our, own.

I highly recommend this book to any fan of Bob Dylan, student of American music, or, for that matter, student of America in the 20th and early 21st Century.

 

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.