Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday, $33), by American historian Sean Wilentz, is a 2010 biography of the great Jewish American troubadour, ingenious songwriter, influential pop icon, and Nobel Prize for Literature nominee.

There have been many studies and bios of Dylan (1941-), but what distinguishes Wilentz’s work is that he examines the history around what he deems to be pivotal Dylan albums and concert performances, interweaving biography, cultural study, and American histories of politics and song as well as his own memories, to attempt to explain the lasting relevance of particular Dylan recordings and tour stops.


A trained historian, Wilentz is adept at chasing down sources of influence, through obscure movies, composers, and singers, to Dylan’s studio releases, films, books, and radio program. Encyclopedic in its reach, the book is rife with footnotes, suffused with photos, and packed with endnotes, an index, and bibliography. It is a serious work, but its “surprises,” as such, are meagre.

One discovery is the connection between one-time Communist sympathizer and consummate American composer Aaron Copland and Dylan’s own efforts, through folk, gospel, and rock genres, to provide works of inspiration and critical reflection for “the common” citizen; to review and mix news events and historical happenings to highlight that the present, whenever it is, belongs to the past.

Another “find,” for Wilentz, is that it is Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody,” free-flowing poems, especially Mexico City Blues (1959), that undergirds Dylan’s “electrified” rock of the mid-1960s, moreso than the “odd tandem” between poet Allen Ginsberg and Dylan, that morphed from mentor-protégé to Ginsberg becoming Dylan’s “mascot.”

In his rendition of the making of Dylan’s landmark album, Blonde on Blonde (1966), Wilentz corrects the omission of Band member Rick Danko plus Bobby Gregg and Paul Griffin from the record credits. (Another Band member, Robbie Robertson, was another session player.)

But Wilentz also stresses the importance of Nashville sidemen— not just “long-haired New York hipsters”—to the procuring of the successful tone that Dylan wanted for this “oddly configured double album, the first of its kind in contemporary popular music,” namely, in Dylan’s words, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.”

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue Tour of 1975-76 is chronicled as a white-face-minstrel homage to a French classic film, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), a provision of material for Dylan’s own feature film Renaldo and Clara (1977), and a statement of his interest in the theatricality of the circus.

Dylan’s 1983 recording of Blind Willie McTell becomes the basis for a look at the development of blues field recordings, the life of the itinerant singer himself (1897-1959), the relationship between folk, gospel, and blues, and Dylan’s own profound interest in African-American history, song, romance, and performance styles.

There’s more — a lot more — in this fat, detailed book that is as up-to-date in the end as 2009. But Wilentz’s general thesis is that what makes Dylan such a wily and gifted interpreter of others’ songs and creator of his own is that he knows the history of American song, in all of its ethnic permutations and racial combinations.

In short, Dylan is not only beholden to the “archives” of people’s songs of whatever sort; he is an archivist — a historian — himself, who will quote other artists’ words, not out of plagiarism, but as a means of recuperating past art — that must not be passed over.

Wilentz defends this controversial aspect of Dylan’s method by insisting, “every artist is … a thief; the trick is to get away with it by making of it something new. Dylan … has the singular ability not only to do this superbly but also to make the present and the past feel like each other.”

As aptly researched and finely nuanced as this work is, there are many occasions where Wilentz is simply forced to guess, to suppose, to speculate. That is fine; Dylan is like scripture — available to all, but still rich with suggestion, mystery, paradox, dream, and contradiction that seem to beg explanation.

One last quibble: The book title is absolutely provincial.


June 17, 2012 - 4:13am