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Book Review: The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus

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Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus was first published in 1997. As the title implies, the book was an in-depth study of Dylan’s album The Basement Tapes (1975). The recordings themselves were made in 1967 with The Band, while Dylan was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. The tapes had circulated for years prior to their official release and represent a crucial period of development for Dylan.

Greil Marcus is a highly respected music critic, and his study of The Basement Tapes is exhaustive. But it is for the phrase that originally was used as nothing more than a chapter title that he will probably best be remembered for. When Invisible Republic was issued in paperback, the title was changed to The Old, Weird America.

“The Old, Weird America” as an expression of our mythical past is brilliant, as is the subject matter of the chapter in question. What Marcus was referring to was the landmark Anthology Of American Folk Music (1952) — a six LP set on Folkways produced by Harry Smith. The importance of the Anthology to the folk boom to follow cannot be overestimated, as Dylan himself has acknowledged.

Marcus’ central point is that the songs of The Basement Tapes represent Bob Dylan’s own Anthology Of American Folk Music. As he points out, many of the songs exist in the same netherworld of the imagination as those (mostly recorded in the 1920s) of Smith’s Anthology. This is not his only point however. Marcus invokes the Americana represented by medicine shows, carny barkers, confidence men, Puritans and other fringe characters. It is an intoxicating concept, both nostalgic, and fascinating.

It is also a bit of a construct, as Marcus freely admits. Poet Kenneth Rexroth coined the term “The old, free America” to describe the work of Carl Sandberg many years ago. Marcus felt the word “weird” described the America he was discussing much better than “free” did.

Obviously, the book is about the music Bob Dylan and The Band made together in 1967. Like the songs themselves though, Marcus’ study has become something more than the sum of its parts. There is a link that stretches back literally hundreds of years, both in intent and often the very songs themselves.

The new Picador paperback edition of The Old, Weird America adds a new introduction, updated discography, and a great (previously unseen) cover with Dylan sporting a coonskin cap. Recommended reading for fans of Bob Dylan, weird America, or thoughtful and intriguing writing.

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