Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Bob Dylan In America": The Roots Of An Icon

Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz. 397 pp. Anchor Books. $16.95 (paperback)

There have been legions of straightforward biographies of Bob Dylan–and this isn’t one of them. Instead, Sean Wilentz provides a cultural history of Dylan as an artist in the American grain. He starts not with the oft-cited example of Woody Guthrie, but with Aaron Copland, whose music gained renown throughout the country when Dylan was a boy. Copland’s incorporations of folk music and tributes to the common man influenced the Greenwich Village folk revival (recalled in Suze Rotolo's "A Freewheelin' Time"; see my review) in which Dylan played a major role. Dylan’s readings of the Beat poets, with their spiritual and alienated sensibility, prompted him to turn away from political concerns and write from within, emphasizing the personal and the surreal, to the dismay of the folkies (epitomized by his “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965). This period resulted in the masterpieces “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965), “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965) and “Blonde On Blonde” (1966).

After a long spell from 1984-1991 in which Dylan seemed to have lost the creative wellsprings of his art, he initiated his own revival by going back to the roots in the acoustic blues albums “Good As I Been To You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993). The result has been a string of acclaimed works that incorporate American blues, country and folk, including “Time Out of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001), “Modern Times” (2006) and “Together Through Life” (2009).

Wilentz considers Dylan’s “appropriation” of the work of other musicians, convincingly making the case that "plagiarism" is an unfair charge. While copying others like all major artists do, Dylan has also transformed each musical influence: “For more than half a century, Bob Dylan had been absorbing, transmuting, and renewing and improving American art forms…” Sean Wilentz has provided us with a thoroughly illuminating account of the American sources of Dylan’s music–and the ways in which Dylan has influenced those sources and become an American icon.


Michael The Molar Maven said...

This sounds like a book I need to read - unfortunately my birthday isn't for 10 1/2 months, so I may have to pay for it myself. It's the cultural approach you speak of that is most appealing. I agree, the comparison to Guthrie is somewhat overstated. I've always believed that Dylan actually invoked Guthrie to get his foot in the door. I'm interested to read about the Dylan/Copland connection. (On a personal note, it was TIME OUT OF MIND that made me realize that even great albums can overstay their welcome. 78 minutes is just too long for my short musical attention span. As much as I liked it, since often I listen to music as an artistic statement, especially with Dylan, I've never listened to TOOM since it left my "playlist" following its release.)

Jeff Tone said...

Yes, you do need to read this book. No question that you will enjoy and learn from it. Regarding "Time Out Of Mind," I don't mind 78 minutes. If I enjoy an artist, why not get more? Who says you have to listen to it all in one session? Regarding length, the only song I think is too long is "Highlands" with its middle monologue. "Time Out Of Mind" is one of Dylan's major albums, one that shouldn't be shelved.