The Washington Post
Bob Dylan in Americaby Sean Wilentz
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sean Wilentz discovered the music of Bob Dylan as a young teenager; almost half a century later, he revisits Dylan’s work with the/b>
One of America’s finest historians shows us how Bob Dylan, one of the country’s greatest and most enduring artists, still surprises and moves us after all these years.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sean Wilentz discovered the music of Bob Dylan as a young teenager; almost half a century later, he revisits Dylan’s work with the skills of an eminent American historian as well as the passion of a fan. Drawn in part from Wilentz’s essays as “historian in residence” of Dylan’s official website, Bob Dylan in America is a unique blend of fact, interpretation, and affinity—a book that, much like its subject, shifts gears and changes shape as the occasion warrants.
Beginning with his explosion onto the scene in 1961, this book follows Dylan as he continues to develop a body of musical and literary work unique in our cultural history. Wilentz’s approach places Dylan’s music in the context of its time, including the early influences of Popular Front ideology and Beat aesthetics, and offers a larger critical appreciation of Dylan as both a songwriter and performer down to the present. Wilentz has had unprecedented access to studio tapes, recording notes, rare photographs, and other materials, all of which allow him to tell Dylan’s story and that of such masterpieces as Blonde on Blonde with an unprecedented authenticity and richness.
Bob Dylan in America—groundbreaking, comprehensive, totally absorbing—is the result of an author and a subject brilliantly met.
From the Hardcover edition.
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The New York Times
“Author Sean Wilentz combines a lifelong music fan’s enthusiasm with a history detective’s doggedness to unearth Dylan’s entire root system. . . . The book is at once a time-hopping biography; a catalog of Dylan’s myriad, eclectic influences . . . and a primer on American music.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Not just another biography of the chameleon folkie-rock-star-poet-troubadour. . . . At once deeply felt and historically layered.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Among those who write about Dylan, Wilentz possesses the rare virtues of modesty, nuance and lucidity, and for that he should be celebrated and treasured.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A panoramic vision of Bob Dylan, his music, his shifting place in American culture, from multiple angles. In fact, reading Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is as thrilling and surprising as listening to a great Dylan song.” —Martin Scorsese
“Extraordinary. . . . With Wilentz, the world around, and inside the head of, Bob Dylan becomes an aperture into the deeper meaning of the American experience. . . . Wilentz has managed to write both the most important book on American history and the most important book on American music in recent memory.” —PopMatters.com
“An enjoyably thorough, convincing explanation why Dylan’s music has gone on finding new audiences ever since he burst upon the New York folk scene of the early 1960s, fresh from the iron range of northern Minnesota and ferociously ambitious for his art.” —Los Angeles Times
“All the American connections that Wilentz draws to explain the appearance of Dylan’s music are fascinating, particularly at the outset the connection to Aaron Copland. The writing is strong, the thinking is strong— the book is dense and strong everywhere you look.” —Philip Roth
“Passionate and informative.” —The New York Review of Books
“A tour de force. . . . By the end, he’s masterfully … offer[ed] not so much an image of Dylan’s place in America as a carefully calibrated lens with which to see it for yourself.” —Newsweek
“Unlike so many Dylan-writer-wannabes and phony ‘encyclopedia’ compilers, Sean Wilentz makes me feel he was in the room when he chronicles events that I participated in. Finally a breath of fresh words founded in hardcore, intelligent research.” —Al Kooper
“[Bob Dylan in America’s] unusual structure [is] well-suited to exploring Dylan’s career, with its many distinct eras governed by different rules, even different gods. The Dylan of this book is not a troubadour or a trickster or a radical, but an alchemist who never met a snippet of music, writing, or art that he couldn’t make his own.” —New York Magazine
“A reading of Dylan’s work within the wider framework of American culture—a [topic] Wilentz . . . tackles with vigor.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Wilentz lays out nuanced arguments on the profound effect Dylan has had on expanding the American consciousness in his five-decade career as a singer and songwriter.” —The Newark Star-Ledger
“[Wilentz] mixes his history and critical assessments with long, often thrilling accounts of concerts and recording sessions. . . . What this book finally does—this is me, not Wilentz—is establish Dylan as the 20th century’s Walt Whitman.”—Bryan Appleyard, The Times (London)
“Sean Wilentz is one of the few great American historians. His political and social histories of American Democracy are masterful and magisterial…. A masterpiece of cultural history that tells us much about who we have been and who we are.” —Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University
“Interesting and intelligent.” —The Guardian (London)
“By focusing on the parts of Dylan’s canon that most move him, Wilentz gets straight to the heart of the matter. If you thought there was nothing new to say about Bob Dylan’s impact on America, this book will make you think twice.” —Bill Flanagan, author of A&R and Evening’s Empire and Editorial Director, MTV Networks
“Wilentz combines his deep musical knowledge with the skills of the fine historian to write one of the most important, insightful and revelatory books about America, its culture and its people, as interpreted through the works of one of its greatest artists. His book is a work both of deep scholarship and profound cultural engagement: a rare and marvelous achievement.” –Philip King, The Irish Times
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Read an Excerpt
1 MUSIC FOR THE COMMON MAN:The Popular Front and Aaron Copland's America
Early in October 2001, Bob Dylan began a two-monthconcert tour of the northern United States. In his first performances since theterrorist attacks of September 11, Dylan debuted many of the songs on his newalbum, "Love and Theft," including the prescient song of disaster,"High Water (for Charley Patton)." Columbia Records, eerily, hadreleased "Love and Theft" on the same day that the terrorists struck.How, if at all, would Dylan now respond to the nation's trauma? Would he, foronce, speak to the audience? What would he play
The new tour had no opening act, but as a concert preludethe audience heard (as had become commonplace at Dylan's shows) a prerecordedselection of orchestral music. And on this tour, Dylan began playing what mayhave seemed a curious choice: a recording of the "Hoe-Down" sectionof Aaron Copland's Rodeo. Then Dylan and his band took the stage and, withacoustic instruments, further acknowledged the awfulness of the moment, while also marking Dylan's changes and continuities over the years, by playing thecountry songwriter Fred Rose's "Wait for the Light to Shine. For the rest of the month, through fifteen shows, Dylanopened with "Wait for the Light to Shine," often after hitting the stage to "Hoe-Down." He would continue to play snatches of Rodeo athis concerts for several tours to come, and now and then he would throw in theopening blasts of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or bits of AppalachianSpring. Copland's music from the 1940s served as Dylan's call to order, hisAmerican invocation. Sixty years on, whether he knew it or not, Dylan had closeda mysterious circle, one that arced back through the folk-music revival wherehe got his start to the left-wing New York musical milieu of the GreatDepression and World War
II. Anyone familiar with Dylan's music knows about itsconnections to the 1930s and 1940s through the influences of Woody Guthrie and,to a lesser extent, Pete Seeger. But there are other connections as well, to abroader world of experimentation with American music and radical politicsduring the Depression years and after. These larger connections are at timesquite startling, especially during the mid-1930s, when shared leftist politicsbrought together in New York a wide range of composers and musicians notusually associated with one another. Thereafter, many of the connections areelliptical and very difficult to pin down. They sometimes involve not directinfluence but shared affinities and artistic similarities recognized only inretrospect. Yet they all speak to Dylan's career, and illuminate his artisticachievement, in ways that Guthrie's and Seeger's work alone do not. The mostimportant of these connections leads back to Aaron Copland and his circle ofpolitically radical composers in the mid-1930s
On March 16, 1934, Copland participated in a concert ofhis own compositions, sponsored by the Composers' Collective of the CommunistParty-affiliated Workers Music League and held at the party's Pierre DegeyterClub on Nineteenth Street in New York. Copland was still known, at age thirty-three,a decade after first making his mark, as a young, iconoclastic, modernistcomposer. The collective, with which Copland was closely associated, had beenfounded in 1932 to nurture the development of proletarian music, and itconsisted of about thirty members. The Degeyter Club took its name from thecomposer of the melody of "The Internationale."
The review of the concert in the Communist newspaperDaily Worker praised Copland for his "progress from [the] ivorytower" and hailed his difficult Piano Variations, written in 1930, as amajor, "undeniably revolutionary" work, even though Copland "wasnot 'conscious' of this at the time." A few months later, Copland,increasingly drawn to the leftist composers and musicians, won a songwriting contest, cosponsored by the collective and the pro-Communist periodical NewMasses, for composing a quasi-modernist accompaniment to the militant poem"Into the Streets May First," written by the poet Alfred Hayes, whois best-known today for his lyrics to the song "Joe Hill." In the 1950s, Copland would publicly disown the piece as "the silliest thing Idid." At the time, though, he was proud enough of what he called "my communist song" to bring it to the attention of his friend the Mexicancomposer Carlos Chávez, and to note that it had been republished in the Soviet Union. The Daily Worker's music reviewer later recalled that the contest judgesagreed that Copland's song was "a splendid thing."
That reviewer, who was one of the founders of theComposers' Collective and wrote under the pseudonym Carl Sands, was the Harvard-trainedcomposer, professor, and eminent musicologist Charles Seeger. At this point,Seeger, a musical modernist, had little use for traditional folk music as amodel for revolutionary culture. "Many folksongs are complacent,melancholy, defeatist," he wrote, "intended to make the slaves enduretheir lot-pretty, but not the stuff for a militant proletariat to feedon." A year later, though, the Communist Party, on instructions from theComintern, abandoned its hyper-militant politics and avant-garde artisticleanings in favor of the broad political and cultural populism of the so-calledPopular Front. The Composers' Collective duly folded in 1936, but Seeger tookthe shift in stride. In 1935, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., to workas an adviser to the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of theResettlement Administration, the forerunner of the New Deal's Farm SecurityAdministration; and he and his second wife, the avant-garde composer RuthCrawford Seeger, were able to collaborate with their friend John Lomax and hisson Alan in helping to build the Archive of American Folk Song at the Libraryof Congress. In addition to collecting and transcribing traditional songs thatwere in danger of disappearing, the archive and its friends would encourage thedevelopment of folk music as a tool for radical politics-efforts thateventually helped inspire Bob Dylan and the folk revival of the 1950s and1960s.
Charles's son Peter, then a teenager, had accompanied hisfather and stepmother to hear Copland discourse at the Degeyter Club, andduring the summer of 1935 he traveled with his father to a square dance andmusic festival in Asheville, North Carolina, run by the legendary folkloristand mountain musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The youngster was already a crackukulele player, but in Asheville he heard traditional folk music for the firsttime, played by Lunsford on a cross between a mandolin and a five-stringbanjo-and it changed his life forever.
A few years later, after dropping out of Harvard andworking under Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, Pete Seeger teamed up witha revolving commune of folk artists, including a young songwriter discoveredand recorded by Lomax, Woody Guthrie, to form the leftist Almanac Singers, whopromoted union organizing, racial justice, and other causes with their topicalsongs. (The supervisor for one of the Almanacs' recording sessions in 1942,Earl Robinson, had written the tunes for "Joe Hill" and the PopularFront classic "Ballad for Americans"-and in 1935 he had studied pianowith Copland at the Workers Music League's school.) In the late 1940s, theAlmanac Singers evolved into the Weavers
The Weavers' recordings would later prove essential inintroducing a younger generation, including Bob Dylan, to the music of WoodyGuthrie and in sparking the broader folk-music revival. But the Weavers werenot the only influential musical descendants of the Composers' Collective-andnot the only ones drawn to American folk music.
Like the Seegers, Aaron Copland continued his musicalcareer with his politics intact. After winning his Communist song award in1934, Copland spent the summer with his teenage lover, the photographer andaspiring violinist Victor Kraft, at a cabin his cousin owned in Lavinia, Minnesota,alongside Lake Bemidji and just to the west of the Mesabi Iron Range. Coplandworked hard on his abstract and purposefully radical formal work, Statementsfor Orchestra, but also relaxed and took in what he called the "amusingtown" of Bemidji, nearby. As he told a radical friend in New York, theamusements included some political escapades: It began when Victor spied a little wizened woman sellinga Daily Worker on the street corners...From that, we learned to know thefarmers who were Reds around these parts, attended an all-day election campaignmeeting of the C.P. unit, partook of their picnic supper and [I] made my firstpolitical speech!...I was being drawn, you see, into the political strugglewith the peasantry! I wish you could have seen them-the true Third Estate, thevery material that makes revolution...When S. K. Davis, Communist candidate forGov. in Minn. came to town and spoke in the public park, the farmers asked meto talk to the crowd. It's one thing to think revolution, or talk about it toone's friends, but to preach it from the streets-OUT LOUD-Well, I made myspeech (Victor says it was a good one) and I'll probably never be the same.
The "good one" for the Communist candidate in Bemidji was, as far as we know, the last political stump speech Copland everdelivered, and his slightly bemused, slightly awkward, and maybe self-ironicdescription-"the peasantry"? "the true Third Estate"? innorthern Minnesota?-makes it sound out of character. But Copland and Kraft didseek out the "Reds around these parts" and joined in their politicalactivity. "The summer of 1934," Copland's most thorough biographerwrites, "found him no mere fellow traveler, but rather an active, vocal'red.' " Thereafter, and until 1949, Copland, if not a member of theCommunist Party, was aligned with the party, its campaigns, and its satelliteorganizations, connections he would later try to minimize and evade underhateful and intense political pressure-and under oath.
Soon after he returned to New York, via Chicago, for thewinter, Copland had his own reckoning with the Popular Front. But the firstgreat musical sensation to come out of the Composers' Collective group andCopland's circle of friends after 1935 involved another young composer, MarcBlitzstein-who, many years later, would have a direct and profound impact onBob Dylan, independent of the Popular Front folksingers. Born to an affluentPhiladelphia family in 1905, Blitzstein had been a prodigy and made hisprofessional debut at age twenty-one with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playingLiszt's E-flat piano concerto. Like Copland, Blitzstein had studied piano andcomposition in Paris in the 1920s with the formidable Nadia Boulanger, butafter the onset of the Depression, living in New York, he found himselfattracted to the radical theater more than to the concert hall. He felt aspecial kinship with the founders of the left-wing, socially conscious GroupTheatre, including Harold Clurman (who had shared an apartment with Copland inParis), Clifford Odets, and Elia Kazan.
In 1932, Blitzstein wrote a one-act musical drama, TheCondemned, based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, a leftist cause célèbre, thatwas never produced. Through the mid-1930s, as a member of the Composers'Collective, he wrote film scores and workers' songs, including a submission tothe songwriting contest that Copland won. All along, Blitzstein had begunturning to concepts of populist, modernist, left-wing musical theater, blendingMarxist politics with jazz, Igor Stravinsky, cabaret, and folk songs. BertoltBrecht and his musical collaborators Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill had conceivedand advanced these ideas in Germany before the Nazi takeover in 1933, andEisler and Weill had brought them to New York as political émigrés. Earlier,Blitzstein had condemned Weill's music as vulgar pandering, but now he hadcompletely changed his mind. In the late summer of 1936, working at what hecalled a white heat, he completed a new proletarian musical play, The CradleWill Rock.
A hard-bitten allegory of capitalist greed andcorruption, capped by an uprising of organized steelworkers, The Cradle WillRock was the first important American adaptation of the Brecht-Eisler-Weillstyle-and it caused a firestorm. As the show took shape, Blitzstein's sponsor,the New Deal's government-funded Federal Theatre Project, already sufferingreprisals from conservatives in Congress, became panicky. Practically on theeve of the first scheduled preview performance, the project, citing impendingbudget cuts, shut down the production and ordered the theater padlocked.Thinking fast, Blitzstein's collaborators-the young director Orson Welles andthe producer John Houseman-vowed to defy the order, rented another theater,redirected ticket holders for the first preview to the new venue, and mountedan astounding sold-out debut. (The audience swelled into a standing-room-onlycrowd when the company invited passersby in for free.) The Actors' Equity unionhad forbidden the cast to perform the piece, just as the musicians' union hadrefused to allow its members to play in what had formally become a commercialproduction for less than union scale, and so, with Blitz-stein himself playingthe score from a piano onstage, the actors spoke and sang their parts from thehouse. The hastily planned, seemingly spur-of-the-moment debut was a politicalas well as an artistic sensation. After a brief run, Cradle reopened somemonths later, by popular demand, under the auspices of Welles and Houseman'snew Mercury Theatre company, and ran for an additional 108 performances.
Aaron Copland was among those present for the impromptupremiere, and it thrilled him. ("The opening night of The Cradle madehistory," he wrote thirty years later, "none of us who were therewill ever forget it.") Defending the show against charges that it wasnothing but leftist propaganda, Copland allowed that "a certainsectarianism" limited its appeal, but he praised its innovativecombination of "social drama, musical revue, and opera," and its clippedprosody and score.* Copland, meanwhile, had moved away from the dissonantmodernism of his earlier work, and he would soon venture beyond orchestralmusic to write film scores and ballet. But Copland's own new direction had morein common with the all-American folk-song collecting of Charles Seeger and theLomaxes that would later strongly affect Bob Dylan than it did withBlitzstein's Brechtian musical theater (which would also affect Dylan's work).Theirs were two very distinct artistic responses to the times, made by twoambitious, left-wing American Jewish composers and friends, one who wasdestined for international fame, the other for relative obscurity. Yet theirsensibilities were closely related, at least in the mind of Aaron Copland.
Copland's new, more open and melodious composing style,which he adopted around 1935 and called "imposed simplicity," emergedin full in 1938, when he completed, for the impresario and writer LincolnKirstein, the music for a ballet, Billy the Kid, a stylized depiction of theoutlaw's life and death. At Kirstein's suggestion, Copland consulted variouscowboy song collections edited by John Lomax, looking for possible themes.Copland wound up choosing six cowboy songs and adapting them to his score. Allof them appeared, at one point or another, in collections published by Lomax.Three-"Whoopie Ti Yi Yo," "The Old Chisholm Trail," and"Old Paint"-would in turn be recorded by Woody Guthrie in a famousseries of sessions in 1944 and 1945 for the record producer Moe Asch, thefounder of Folkways Records.
Meet the Author
SEAN WILENTZ is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University. He is the author of The Rise of American Democracy, which received the coveted Bancroft Prize, and, most recently, The Age of Reagan. He has also received a Deems Taylor Award for musical commentary and a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan, Live 1964: The Concert at Philharmonic Hall.
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