The best book so far about Bob Dylan, the only one worthy of his oeuvre, is his own astonishing Chronicles, Volume One (2004), but while we wait for the next fix, Bob Dylan in America will keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay. Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton, and author of books about Jefferson, Lincoln and Reagan. He is also a second-generation hipster and a Dylan fan since 1964, when he first saw him play.
Wilentz planned this book, he explains, as ‘a coherent commentary on Dylan’s development, as well as his achievements, and on his connections to enduring currents in American history and culture’. As a critic he is not a patch on Christopher Ricks — Dylan, as he notes, is ‘one of the major writers Ricks has studied meticulously’ — and limits himself mainly to quotation and paraphrase. As an historian, though, he is impressive.
It has always been clear that, in making his ‘new kind of high popular art’, Dylan has borrowed from traditional folk, and from ‘the blues, rock and roll, country and western, black gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Tex-Mex borderlands music, Irish outlaw ballads…’ Wilentz traces these influences with scholarly care, taking us beyond such obvious candidates as Woody Guthrie and Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter and into such esoteric company as Tom Turpin and Bill Dooley.
He writes at length about ‘Blind’ Willie McTell, who is the subject of what is probably Dylan’s most perfect song, which inexplicably failed to make the cut for Infidels, and was the author of such classic lines as
Cutty he’s in the barroom drinkin’ out of a
But nor does he neglect ‘Blind’ Willie Johnson and ‘Blind’ Blake Alphonso Higgs — who is not to be confused with ‘Blind’ Blake— or ‘Whoopie’ John Wilfhart.
He also notes Dylan’s unlikely adoration of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and considers his more classical influences — that of Brecht and Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’, for instance, on such songs as ‘Visions of Johanna’. And he writes at inordinate length about Aaron Copland, which seems a tenuous connection — ‘it would have been extraordinary if Dylan, as a boy or a teenager, had not heard, somewhere, something composed by Copland’.
It is clear, too, from the songs and from Chronicles, that Dylan’s influences are as much literary as musical. Wilentz’s literary investigations are slightly compromised by his quaint fondness for the word ‘poesy’, as in the rather baffling aperçu, ‘Gary Snyder brought some of the traditions of Pacific northwoods radicalism into his Zen poesy’; but he conscientiously parades Whitman, Melville and Poe, Twain and Steinbeck, Blake and Rimbaud, Pound and Eliot, Kerouac and most especially Ginsberg, who turned from mentor to pupil as Dylan achieved the ‘merger of poetry and song that Ezra Pound had foreseen as modernism’s future’.
Some of the connections he unearths are obscure, such as that between Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 and Marcel Carné’s film Les enfant du paradis (1944), with Joan Baez as Garance and Dylan as Baptiste. Some offer minor revelations: in 1974, for example, Dylan took painting lessons from Norman Raeben, who told him that he was all tangled up in blue. And who knew that Jimi Hendrix started out accompanying Johnny Hallyday? The book is full of such plums.
It is hardly news that Dylan ‘has dug inside America as deeply as any artist ever has’, or that he ‘steals what he loves and loves what he steals’, but Wilentz has fun tracking the history of his kleptomania.
In Love and Theft Dylan explicitly confesses to grand larceny, while remaining prophetically up-to-the-minute as he sings about a dive in lower Manhattan, outside which things are blasted and breaking up, nothing standing — ‘it’s baaaad out there’; the album was released on 11 September 2001.
However much he steals, he remains triumphantly himself, and has ended up an electric old Yeats:
I’m stark naked, but I don’t care.