Monday, April 27, 2015

Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan In America: Revisited

You may or may not have noticed that Sean Wilentz is the one who wrote the liner notes for Bootleg Series Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964. He's actually an established historian who teaches American history at Princeton where he has taught since 1979. Utilizing the skills he cultivated to unearth the trivialities of history and analyze, dissect and divulge their value, Wilentz brings to readers and avid Dylan fans many riches. In a certain way Dylan does not, however, appear to be the object of the author's lens. Instead, Dylan becomes the lens through which we see America in a new light. This is Wilentz's contribution, and why this book is a worthy addition to your Dylan library. (You do have a Dylan library, right?)

This is actually the second time I've read Bob Dylan in America, this time listening to an audio book during my morning commute. This second time through proved even more rewarding than the first at times. Wilentz reads the book himself, which is satisfactory for this volume. At certain places he includes audio clips from various concerts, studio takes or other source which serve as delightful embellishments to reinforce or illustrate what he had written.

Some books (movies, too) are interesting but do not hold up to a second read. Even though it had been just a year since I read it, my first impression as he went through the introduction was that this was going to be a good read yet again.

Bruce Handy in a New York Times Book Review has written, "Among those who write regularly about Dylan, Wilentz possesses the rare virtues of modesty, nuance, and lucidity, and for that he should be celebrated and treasured....Wilentz is very, very good on the actual music. In fact, the centerpiece of his book is a vivid look at the 'Blonde on Blonde' sessions, during which the musicians teased and groped their way toward the album's 'thin, wild mercury sound,' in Dylan's famous description."

And what makes the book a treasure is knowing that Wilentz has had access to material few others could have possibly come into contact with. In writing about Blonde on Blonde, he shares things he has found on the original session tapes, for example. Unlike some of his early studio records which often took only one take, this Dylan masterpiece was not produced effortlessly. Thus, what Wilentz brings to the table are a whole set of stories and anecdotes to add to the Dylan legend.

Wilentz by trade is a historian, and this is partly what is on display, his skills as a historian. In chapter one he takes a deep dive into Aaron Copland, followed by a chapter on the Beats. These two chapters set a context for the emergence of Dylan in Greenwich Village in the early 60's, The Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha? and the people who formed that scene.

The scope of the book runs from his early transformations to later struggles to his 21st century albums, film (Masked and Anonymous) and art, and even includes insights about his 2013 CD Christmas in the Heart. Did you know that 13 of the 15 songs Dylan covered were recorded by Bing Crosby as well? Perhaps this album was a foreshadowing of his current album of Sinatra covers, Shadows in the Night.

Wilentz takes reader into unexpected terrain when he reviews the life of Blind Willie McTell, a song Wilentz seems to believe should not have been left off Infidels, and the backstory on Delia, which second time around becomes tedious.

What the author seems to be making a case for toward the end of the book is that the accusations of plagiarism that emerged in his latest albums were not necessarily the vulgar kind, but rather that Dylan himself is a historian, a research, and a genius who inhales America's -- and the world's -- musical and literary past so that it enters his very bloodstream. And when he exhales it is somehow his own.

What is creativity but the spark that combines existing things into new forms that did not exist before.

One of the Amazon.com reviewers gave us these comments:
The author doesn't dwell on the early 60's to a great extent because so much has already been written about this particular time. Wilentz then looks at Dylan selectively up through and into the 90's after his, arguably, fallow period, and how he looked for inspiration in early forms of folk music and country blues. Using individual songs, ("Delia", "Lone Pilgrim" for example), Wilentz paints a good overview of Dylan during this period with his chosen examples of Dylan's work. The author concludes with his critical look at "Love And Theft" at the turn of the century, and ends with Dylan's "Christmas In The Heart' album in 2009-which created quite strong opinions on both Dylan and his current work.

Wayne Randall Morrison wrote this review:
Brilliant! Really, the only word for this book. It covers several different phases of Dylans career, but the main focus is on his more recent output. You will especially love it if you are REALLY fascinated by Dylan's output since "Love and Theft", which I believe to be one of the best albums of the last 25 years.

In short, as noted at the beginning, it's a worthy addition to your collection. 

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