Book Review: Bob Dylan in America
Non-fiction. Hardcover, 390 pages. By Sean Wilentz
To be on the side of people who are struggling for something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being political. —Bob Dylan
Bobby was not really a political person; he was thought of as being a political person, a man of the Left. And in a general way, he was, but not interested in the true nature of the Soviet Union or any of that crap. We thought he was hopelessly politically naïve. In retrospect, I think he may have been more political sophisticated than we were. —Dave Van Ronk
He had declared his independence from politics because he didn’t want to be a political puppet or feel obligated to take a stand all the time. He was above and beyond politics in an interesting way. —Allen Ginsberg
Thirty-some years, whenever I go to a march, a sit-in, or a lie-in, or a be-in, or a jail-in, people say, “Is Bob coming?” I say, “He never comes, you moron. You know? When you gonna get it? Never did, probably never will.” —Joan Baez
All my songs are protest songs….That’s all I do is protest. —Bob Dylan
There are truisms within the study of Bob Dylan that lead listeners and readers to believe nothing new can be said about the man or his art. Dylan’s career is subject to rote mapping, its knowledge structure so common it often seems to be public domain (a territory in which Dylan proudly resides). One such meme: Dylan is a descendant of Woody Guthrie. The firmness of the Guthrie genealogy is comparable to the Dylan-initiated belief that, after a certain point, he stopped writing “finger-pointing songs,” i.e., protest songs. In response, Sean Wilentz, self-appointed “historian-in-residence” at Dylan’s official website, has written Bob Dylan in America, a book of historio-cultural criticism that realigns aspects of the Dylan narrative and captures different angles of his prismatic art.
Less elliptical and more historical than Greil Marcus, Wilentz’s book makes several enlightening proposals while rehashing a small amount of Dylan-related information. But it starts off curiously. In the introduction, Wilentz explains how the book came together piecemeal through a series of essays written for varying purposes, pardoning himself for redundancies in the text and an awkward ordering of subject matter. The disclaimer is inexcusable: it’s unclear why Wilentz didn’t (a) structure and market the book as an essay collection or (b) take the time to cohere his essays and remedy unnecessary repetition. And another drawback is his penchant for paraphrasing Dylan lyrics in a few lines of prose in an attempt at succinct summarizing.
But there are plenty of critical claims in the book that make it worth a read, the most sweeping of which is Wilentz’ roundabout connection between Dylan and American composer Aaron Copland. Wilentz describes a line of influence and American consciousness that would have impacted the nascent Dylan, placing the enigmatic artist in the context of the political Left. The formula is executed as follows:
Copland’s “Hoe-Down” plays as the introductory music at post-9/11 Dylan concerts
Copland composed his work Rodeo (in which “Hoe-Down” appears) in 1942 during his Popular Front period
Copland lifted the melody from “Bonaparte’s Retreat”
The version Copland used was performed by fiddler William Hamilton Stepp
Stepp was recorded in his native Kentucky in 1937 by Alan Lomax
Folklorist Alan Lomax’s recordings proved vastly influential to Dylan’s musical education
The premise isn’t too far-fetched. After all, The Almanac Singers were considered part of the Popular Front, and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are obviously integral to that group. But Wilentz writes of an overriding American consciousness that Copland and Dylan fall under, or amidst — they permeate the culture, the citizenry inescapable from their influence. Critics and audiences alike have “slight[ed] the influence of the much larger cultural and political spirit, initially associated with the Communist Party and its so-called Popular Front efforts to broaden its political appeal in the mid-1930s, which pervaded American life during the 1940s — Bob Dylan’s formative boyhood years” (9-10).
Wilentz charges that “Copland’s music from the 1940s served as Dylan’s call to order, his American invocation” (18). This is both startling and significant in that Dylan, a performer and man infamous for political music coupled with nonpolitical action, was influenced by an active participant in the Popular Front — very noteworthy. Copland, as a revolutionary artist, sought to suffuse “the fabric of national life” and did so by “mining and reinventing…cowboy tunes” (26). Wilentz then compares Copland’s turn to American myth and song to Dylan’s delving into the folk tradition, arguing that they’re kindred spirits in their “amalgamating art” (45).
For Wilentz, the orchestral work of Copland “raises some of the same conundrums that Dylan’s songs do — about art and politics, simplicity and difficulty, compromise and genius, love and theft” (35). Wilentz’s analysis eventually leads from Dylan’s role and participation in the folk tradition to Dylan’s appropriation, purloining, and embodying of both high and low American art remnants and revenants, a practice so intricate and encompassing it warrants the title “Love and Theft” (quotation marks, warts, and all). With each subsequent chapter — culminating in Dylan’s later years (1990s, 2000s), where his allusive and referential texts are most apparent and have drawn the most critical attention — Wilentz demonstrates and frequently refers to the imbricated, overlapping nature of Dylan’s influences, historical context, and the art that came out of it.
Wilentz also devotes noble time and attention to the details of a variety of interesting topics: Dylan’s convergence with the Beat Generation; Dylan’s penchant for masks/masques starting with the 1964 Halloween concert at the Philharmonic and crowning on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour; Dylan’s Civil War infatuation; the return-to-form Dylan experienced in the 1990s via the folk tradition, Americana (see: Theme Time Radio Hour), and that old-time religion (see: The Sacred Harp). Each of these sections of the book provide an as-yet-uncovered aspect to the workings of Dylan’s art — a chorus from Kerouac’s Mexican City Blues, a forgotten French film, the prevalence and ubiquity of the phrase “bam de lam.”
While Wilentz spends unnecessary time on subjects that have already been tackled by both more adept formalist critics (Michael Gray, Christopher Ricks) and authors dedicated to specific albums or periods — the chapters dealing with the recording of Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s born-again phase, and the 1980s monolith “Blind Willie McTell” don’t add much to the discourse — he conjures the concern — for questions of race, class, etc. — that Dylan consciously or habitually (the latter may have been the cause for the former) shirks. Dylan’s reticence to sing and speak pedantically about issues is not so much a defense mechanism as an offense mechanism. His job as an artist, first and foremost, is to be elusive, to often be difficult, to evade titles. Dylan is a man consumed by American mythos and his own subsequent myth-making. And it’s important to note: for Dylan, the personal is political. Even at his most apolitical moments, Dylan is functioning within a revolutionary context. Each Dylan song — being pastiche, being layers upon layers of American lore, law, and litany — is a political act, each song a meta-commentary on our history and unfolding current events.
With Bob Dylan in America, Wilentz sets to prove Dylan could be a radical without taking to the streets, showing how perhaps Dylan’s music itself was/is enough, the reveille agitating the youth uprising and the alarm clock reawakening slumbering fogies.