Sunday, May 11, 2014

On Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan In America, Frankie and Albert and More...

Oakland, February 11, 1974
It used to be that books about Bob Dylan were biographies. Perhaps in part due to the somewhat private nature of his life, the public view was as ambiguous as many of his lyrics, veiled in smoke and fog, much of it of his own making as a necessary act of self-preservation.

You'd think that reading books about Dylan would get old, but that conclusion couldn't be further from the truth. Most books need a unique angle and a purpose, whatever their theme. And most publishers desire to sell enough volumes to recoup their investment in publishing and marketing their books. Unless the book has something more to contribute -- and I don't mean one new insight for every hundred pages -- it's just not going to get Dylan fans jazzed.

Two books I am currently reading are Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan In America and David Kinney's soon to be released The Dylanologists. The latter is especially exciting as it begins with events close to home. I live in Duluth these days and aim to share here more about this book in a future entry or two.

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. Utilizing the skills he cultivated to unearth the trivialities of history and analyze, dissect and divulge their value, Wilentz brings to many riches for the avid Dylan fan. 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?)

A lot of the pearls have been collected in the footnotes so as to not interfere with the flow of the writing. The author's documentation and depth of research reveal themselves in myriad ways. In April I referenced Dylan's relationship to the Beats. The book is stellar in its realistic portrayal of the early Sixties New York scene that Dylan immersed himself in and emerged from. Wilentz, who is himself from New York City, did not need to "imagine" what it was like. He experienced it.

Dylan unplugs for MTV. *
The trajectory of the narrative leads all the way through to our contemporary Dylan and his Never Ending Tour. Wilentz does not sugarcoat things, but is clearly a fan. His in depth analysis of the manner in which Dylan has become a repository of American roots music and history is what gives this book its value.

Critics have raised the plagiarism flag on more than one occasion with regards to Dylan's work, but Wilentz helps shed a lot on the manner in which Dylan has internalized so much music history, all the way back to pre-Civil War hymnbooks through to pre-recorded Deep South blues.

One of my favorite lines in the book is delivered when discussing Love and Theft. "He steals what he loves and loves what he steals." The brilliant manner in which Dylan re-orients the music of the past to make it his own is much like an artist using existing images to build complicated collages that give new meanings to the old.

Here's a homework assignment for you. Check out the similarities and differences between these four songs from Love and theft and the four songs of the past from which they are derived.
Compare "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" by Dylan with "Uncle John's Bongos" by Johnny and Jack.
"Bye and Bye" by Dylan; "Havin' Myself a Time" by Billie Holiday.
"Lonesome Day Blues" by Dylan; "Low Down Dirty Dog Blues" by Son House.
Compare Dylan's "Floater" with "Snuggled On Your Shoulder" by Eddie Duchin & Lew Sherwood.

Are you having fun yet? Dylan is. He's tilling the soil of America's roots, far beyond what anyone has ever done to my knowledge. Right from the beginning when he was in Dinkytown as a student at the U of MN he was listening to the music, digging through the treasures he found and kept finding, internalizing these riches much like air enters our lungs to merge with our bloodstream and ultimately nourish the cells of our bodies.

Wilentz notes that Dylan's "weak" albums of the early Nineties were actually an deeper explorations of the soil beneath the roots and served to form the foundation for the critically acclaimed albums that followed beginning with Time out Of Mind.

One of the songs from that period was Frankie and Albert, released on Good As I Been To You. Wilentz takes readers on what must be the most thorough exploration of the archaeology surrounding this song, leading us back to murders in St. Louis and Savannah, and the circuitous route it took to become must of the most recorded songs of heartache and betrayal in our blues canon, more popularly known as Frankie and Johnny.

It should be noted that some reviewers of the book at found the book dry. I think it has to do with the mood you are in. The material could potentially get tedious for some, but when you latch on to the notion that the details serve a larger purpose, you can just go along for the ride.

Frankie & Albert

Add caption
Frankie was a good girl.
Everybody knows.
For Albert's new suite of clothes.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Albert said, "I'm leaving you.
Won't be gone for long.
Don't wait for me.
A-worry about me when I'm gone."
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie went down to the corner saloon. Get a bucket of beer.
Said to the bartender.
"Has my lovin' man been here?"
He was her man but he done her wrong.

"Well, I ain't gonna tell you no stories.
I ain't gonna tell you no lies.
I saw Albert an hour ago.
With a gal named Alice Bly."
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie went down to 12th Street.
Lookin' up through the window high.
She saw her Albert there.
Lovein' up Alice Bly.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie pulled out a pistol.
Pulled out a forty-four.
Gun went off a rootie-toot-toot
And Albert fell on the floor.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie got down upon her knees.
Took Albert into her lap.
Started to hug and kiss him.
But there was no bringin' him back.
He was her man but he done her wrong.

"Gimme a thousand police men.
Throw me into a cell.
I shot my Albert dead.
And now I'm goin' to hell.
He was her man but he done me wrong."

Judge said to the jury.
"Plain as a thing can be.
A woman shot her lover down.
Murder in the second degree."
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Frankie went to the scaffold.
Calm as a girl could be.
Turned her eyes up towards the heavens.
Said, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."
He was her man but he done her wrong.

Copyright ©1992 Special Rider Music

* * * *

The North Country Dylan Festival kicks off this Friday in Duluth and moves to Hibbing the following Friday. For details on the latter visit On the former, join us for our weeklong Duluth Dylan Festival.

EdNote: This blog entry and others like it have the aim of raising awareness for the upcoming Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan concert which will kick off the 2014 North Country Dylan Celebration in Duluth and Hibbing. Sacred Heart Music Center, May 17, 2014. For tickets to this great event visit

If you wish to help, visit the Salute Facebook page and share with your friends by clicking the Invite button. 

A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan is a presentation of the Armory Arts and Music Center and Magic Marc Productions.

Photo Credits
Top right: Bill Pagel
Unplugged photo credit: Frank Micelotta. Wilentz places this moment into an interesting context.
Close up of Patricia Canelake painting at Red Mug


Anonymous said...

Frankie and Albert appeared on Good As I Been To You, not World Gone Wrong. Nice piece otherwise, though.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks. Good catch. I work quickly and do not always have a fact checker. Time magazine would allow such lapses, but we do the best we can. I corrected it as soon as I saw the note in case some people do not read the comments.
Keep on truckin'