Bob Dylan in America, by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday, 390 pp., $28.95)
Since the death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 2007, no one has seemed likelier to assume Schlesinger’s spot among our intelligentsia than the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. Wilentz fits the Schlesinger mold as a public intellectual, author of sweeping histories of U.S. presidents, Democratic-party stalwart, and A-list member of the Establishment. Schlesinger moonlighted as movie reviewer for Vogue and Saturday Review; so why shouldn’t Wilentz spend his off hours writing liner notes for the official website of Bob Dylan?
Liner notes — those content descriptions once printed on the sleeves of vinyl record albums — are still around, and they even award Grammys for them. Wilentz was nominated in 2004 for his summations of the songs on Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Volume 6 CD. He didn’t win, he tells us in Bob Dylan in America. If he had, he would have been the first person with both a Grammy and a Bancroft Prize on his mantle.
Such a combination would not actually be that odd for Wilentz, given his background: The head of the American Studies program at Princeton grew up in New York’s Brooklyn Heights, and his uncle in Greenwich Village co-owned, with Wilentz’s father, the 8th Street Bookshop, where the Beat poets of the 1950s rubbed elbows with the young folk-music enthusiasts who came along in the early 1960s. Young Sean Wilentz (born in 1951) grew up among folkies and their hangers-on, and bearded versifiers and their hangers-on. He reports with evident pride that “the hippest of 1960s friendships” was struck up at his uncle’s apartment above the bookshop, when Bob Dylan was brought there to meet Allen Ginsberg in 1963. There began an “artistic and personal alliance,” Wilentz says, under which the author of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” showed signs of wanting to become a rock star while the author of “Blowin’ in the Wind” labored to put avant-garde profundities into folk and rock songs.
The world was never the same after that, Bob Dylan in America suggests. Bob Dylan as tastemaker has had as much effect on our popular music as any other single American. His genius is that he was able to get some of his avant-garde profundities onto the Billboard charts (often by having them performed by groups with pleasanter voices than his raggedy baritone). Moreover, he helped to steer rock ’n’ roll from an incipient blandness back to its roots in the blues songs sung and played by black Americans.
Unfortunately, Wilentz gets so swept up in Dylanology that he fills the pages of this book with the minutest details of the man, his music, and the lives and music of those who came before and influenced him; we end up not knowing how much weight we really ought to give to the profusion of “milestones” and “breakthroughs” that Wilentz announces. Dylan is of general interest, to be sure, yet the general reader will feel swamped by session tapes, overdubs, and sundry information “based on the logs and files kept by Columbia Records.” The investigation into “Delia,” a folk song recorded by Dylan in 1993, its earlier versions by Blind Willie McTell and others, and its origins as traced by Wilentz’s immersion in the archives of the newspapers of Savannah, Ga., circa 1900, would have been twice as interesting if it had been half as long.
The author also can’t resist inserting his reminiscences about Dylan performances he attended as a teenager. These asides were charming at first, and not without insight, but they grew too frequent. (My limit was reached at the point where he wrote: “I forget how my roommate and I managed to score such good seats.”) Moreover, the prose sometimes takes on, dare I say it, the fanzine quality of liner notes. Consider: “No longer [was] Dylan the young growling rebel of the 1960s, but a darkling survivor who, though wiser, still had attitude and understood it — attitude that was of the moment but also as old as the hills, deeply implicated in the American past but also timeless.” Or this: “What Presley had done with his body and his voice, Dylan was doing with his words — coy, conversational, and comical, feeding the youth conspiracy of candid pleasure (and pleasant candor) but with jesting, gentle persuasion.”
Ah yes. About those words — those poetic phrasings whose length often overran their musical measures, or whose imagery juxtaposed beauty parlors with circuses with riot squads. Dylan was very affected, Wilentz says, by the way the coffee-house poets in the Village declaimed their work. But ought we assume, as the author does, that the Beat influence on Dylan was an unalloyed good? The culture critic Martha Bayles articulated it best: “Dylan’s more rambling, free-associative lyrics display the typical vices of beat poetry: deliberate obscurity, self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and (most damning) indifference to the aural texture — the music — of words.”
This indifference is audible every time the lyricist insists upon defying conventional English pronunciation: “For the countless CON-fused, AC-cused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse”; or, “Though I know that evening’s empire has RE-turned into sand.” There are a lot more examples in Dylan — so many that one might be excused for wishing he had run from the Allen Ginsberg–Gregory Corso set as fast as he fled the Communists. (Wilentz has an excellent, if discursive, section on the Red 1940s musicians and composers who mentored and/or influenced the singer-songwriter early on.)
If Bob Dylan hadn’t been so enamored of the self-styled heirs of Walt Whitman and William Blake, we folk-rock fans might not have been saddled with such gibberish-filled songs as “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Desolation Row.” Wilentz considers these the masterpieces of the Dylan oeuvre. More numerous are the philistines — myself among them — who gravitate toward the more tuneful and simpler Dylan offerings like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Cryptic symbols pop up even in these songs, but at least their lyrics, for the most part, stay in bounds and can therefore disappear into the melody if the singer or listener wishes.
Having committed himself to elevating words over music, the solitary songster-poet struggled to leave his writing desk and perform with other musicians. For someone whose achievements rank him with Elvis Presley and the Beatles — and no one disputes that Dylan belongs in that pantheon — he had a remarkably difficult time with that staple of the modern music industry, the recording session. We get far too much from Wilentz on haphazard rehearsals, aborted studio sessions, and accompanists having to cool their heels late into the night while Dylan fiddled to fix his songs. But this demonstration of Dylan’s handicaps in this regard does tend to support the Bayles thesis that the singer’s effort to develop his inner poet had a serious downside.
Visible here and there in this overstuffed book is a trait its author shares with the late Arthur Schlesinger: Although he is a partisan, he is capable of taking a critical view of those on his side. He looks back on the students who filled those 1960s concert venues and frankly sees that he and his peers were a bunch of self-righteous know-it-alls. He also sees self-righteousness in Bob Dylan. He does not seem quite sold on the songwriter’s musical protest against the murder conviction of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. (One deflating fact he throws in is that Carter was not such a great boxer that he “coulda been the champion a’ the world,” as the song would have it.) He is even less sympathetic toward Dylan’s taking up of the cause of George Jackson, the “jailed black Marxist militant” killed in San Quentin by prison guards in 1971.
These deviations from political correctness are a pleasant surprise. With much of the rest of the book, however, the old saying applies: I guess you just had to be there.
— Lauren Weiner’s essay on folk music and politics, “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?”, appeared in the January issue of First Things magazine.