Bob Dylan, according to Sean Wilentz’s passionate and informative (if at times lurchingly uneven) new book, “has dug inside America as deeply as any artist ever has.” This is well put, for it suggests the way in which Dylan’s songs (there are now more than five hundred of them) seem to unearth a strange, alternate, subterranean America, an antic shadow country of dirt roads and frontier towns, abandoned mines and teeming plantations, a land inhabited by outlaws, vagabonds, crapshooters, confidence men, vigilantes, and religious fanatics, to name only its most conspicuous citizens.
Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, has clearly had to do considerable digging of his own: his book constructs a system of underground tunnels connecting Dylan’s music (thirty-four studio albums alone, from 1962’s self-titled debut to last year’s characteristically odd Christmas in the Heart) to a vast range of movements and individuals in American history and culture. Something of Wilentz’s method is suggested by his epigraph, which is taken from Whitman’s “When I Read the Book”: “Only a few hints—a few diffused, faint clues and indirections…” Wilentz sees Dylan’s work as a constellation of hints and clues, and he follows up on them with an obsessive meticulousness.
The influence of Woody Guthrie on Dylan is well known. Less so is that of Aaron Copland, whose famous “Hoe-Down,” from the ballet Rodeo (1942), Dylan began using in 2001 as a prelude to his live concerts. Noting this fact, Wilentz launches eagerly into a discussion of New York’s radical leftist musical milieu in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, Copland, already a celebrated composer, had gotten to know the musicologist and composer Charles Seeger, who was helping his friend and fellow musicologist John Lomax to expand the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, along with Seeger’s second wife, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. From Seeger1 and Lomax Copland discovered a wide array of vernacular music, which he began to draw upon and transfigure in works such as Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944).
In the “Hoe-Down” section of Rodeo, Copland takes the fiddle line from an old country song, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and through a series of ingenious counterpoints and elaborations makes of it something entirely new. Wilentz shrewdly sees in this method a foreshadowing of Dylan’s own approach to songwriting. Both men, according to Wilentz,
soaked up the popular music of the American past…and transformed it into their art, reconfiguring old songs and raising them to creative and iconic levels that the purist folklorists could never have reached.
Dylan was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, the eldest son of comfortably-off second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. Like many restless and disaffected members of his generation, he first began rummaging through the country’s immense trove of traditional folk songs in the late 1950s, having come to the conviction that the rock and roll he’d heard on the radio and fallen in love with as an adolescent, with its limited subject matter of teenage hedonism and heartache, “didn’t reflect life in a realistic way.” These folk songs, on the other hand, as Dylan writes in his endearingly blunt and disheveled memoir, Chronicles (2004), were about
debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers…. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore…. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.
Perhaps the best guide to this different, liberated republic is the music historian and cultural critic Greil Marcus, whom Dylan goes on to mention admiringly in his very next sentence. Marcus’s The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (first published in 1997) is a masterful, imaginative, sometimes overimaginative piece of cultural detective work that traces various strains in Dylan’s music back to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), the legendary three double-LP compilation of old-time vernacular songs that in the late Fifties and early Sixties served as the cornerstone of the folk revival.2
The Anthology was, for Dylan, a source both of musical history and of the social and political history captured in (and often eccentrically distorted by) that music. Although many of its songs are, as Marcus writes, “tied to historical incidents”—“White House Blues” is about the assassination of President McKinley, “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” is about the West Virginia railroad worker who was hanged after killing a man during a game of craps—they are not, strictly speaking, “historical dramas.” Rather, the songs “dissolve a known history of wars and elections into a sort of national dream, a flux of desire and punishment, sin and luck, joke and horror.” Dylan first heard the Anthology in 1959 when he was a college dropout loitering in the coffee houses around the University of Minnesota. According to Marcus it constituted the “first true map of a republic that was still a hunch to him.” Dylan, however, would not leave this republic as he found it.3
At his recent public orgy of shrill alarmism and lachrymose self-righteousness, the so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, Glenn Beck stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a shallow, predictable, sinisterly atavistic encomium to the United States. Beck’s speech was followed by a performance of “America, the Beautiful” by the country music stars John Rich and Jo Dee Messina. Forty-seven years earlier to the day, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the same steps and delivered his “I Have a Dream” oration. Before King’s speech, a young Bob Dylan had approached the lectern, with its thicket of microphones, to sing one of his recent compositions, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Although he was just twenty-two, Dylan had already established himself as the moral and artistic figurehead of the folk revival by writing and singing what Marcus, in his new book, a loose, baggy, but stimulating hoard of journalistic pieces from the past four decades, calls “songs that told stories about the wrong inside a nation that believed it was always right.”4
“Only a Pawn in Their Game” is about Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s chief organizer in Mississippi, who had been murdered less than three months earlier, on June 12, by the Klansman Byron de la Beckwith. Dylan’s approach to this subject, like his decision to perform the song at the March on Washington, is characteristic of his refined moral intelligence. Rather than sermonize—as, for example, Phil Ochs does in his predictable, hand-wringing, and largely forgotten “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” written the same year—the song asks its audience to husband their anger and to consider where it might be more profitably spent. “A South politician preaches to the poor white man,” Dylan sang in his flat, hay-feverish voice, himself wary of preaching:
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The poor white man: not merely impecunious but also deserving of pity or sympathy. It is some feat of moral imagination to be saying this, especially so soon after Evers’s murder. How finely, though, it answers to the spirit of King’s ecumenicism.
As the Sixties wore on, however, Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu. (Such politicized folk music, Dylan said in one of the notorious semicoherent interviews he gave mid-decade, “is a bunch of fat people.”5) As a result, his songs became stranger, more complex, less overtly concerned with the political happenings of the day. They no longer partitioned the country into moral factions, with arms dealers, corrupt politicians, Southern racists, and conventional bourgeois society on one side and the young, the poor, the downtrodden, and the guitar-and- harmonica-wielding troubadours on the other. They no longer asked—as Florence Reece’s pro-union protest song of the 1930s had done—“Which Side Are You On?” Instead, Dylan began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.
Dylan’s achievement is vast and hard to distill, but part of it surely consists of the way in which he expanded the scope of his chosen form to the point that, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a four-minute song might contain anything he felt like throwing into it. No songwriter before him would have thought to include Paul Revere’s horse, the ghost of Belle Starr, Jack the Ripper, the Chamber of Commerce, John the Baptist, Galileo’s math book, Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, and the National Bank in a single song, as Dylan does in the rollicking phantasmagoria of “Tombstone Blues” (1965), a fairly typical example of his output at the time.
Like the Anthology’s America, the America of Dylan’s mid-Sixties masterpieces—“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna”—is less a place of identifiable historical record than a superabundant nightmare from which Dylan is trying, without much success, to awake. At moments, to be sure, the contours of rancorous social comment seem to appear within the rich tapestry of Dylan’s surreal lyrics. When, for example, he sings—
The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle
—it is difficult not to think of Lyndon Johnson, the incarceration of draft-dodgers, and the disproportionate number of African-Americans sent to fight in Vietnam.6 For the most part, though, the America evoked in these songs is a kind of cross between Calypso’s Island and Lewis Carroll’s Looking-Glass Land, a place of shifting surfaces and arbitrary reversals, where the overriding mood is a combination of dread, confinement, and nihilistic glee. “Oh, the ragman draws circles/Up and down the block,” Dylan cryptically drawls at the start of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and the song holds out little hope of clarification:
I’d ask him what the matter was
But I know that he don’t talk
And the ladies treat me kindly
And furnish me with tape
But deep inside my heart
I know I can’t escape
The mood in such a song, however, is as much a product of Robbie Robertson’s delicately spasming guitar lines and Al Kooper’s puckish organ work as of Dylan’s words.
As many commentators have remarked, Dylan is himself a fair to middling instrumentalist: listen to his erratic, off-duty strumming on “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Tombstone Blues” or the shrill harmonica on many of the early live recordings. Together with his raw voice, these blemishes helped to create the distinctively coarse-grained texture one hears on his mighty triptych of mid-Sixties rock-and-roll albums, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966)—those hectic, fizzing records that stood in such sharp contrast to the lush, velvety soundscapes of so much of the era’s pop music.
At the same time, Dylan owes a tremendous debt to the remarkable musicians who have played on his albums over the years. Highway 61 Revisited would be a severely diminished piece of work without Paul Griffin’s breezy barrelhouse piano, which weaves and jitters its way around “Approximately Queen Jane” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” John Wesley Harding (1967) owes much of its disquieting mood (at once jaunty and funereal, forthright and evasive) to Kenny Buttrey’s bustling drums and Charlie McCoy’s playful bass riffs, which prod and propel Dylan’s sedate vocals and acoustic guitar. And The Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967 but not released until 1975) would not be The Basement Tapes without the merrily boisterous accompaniment of Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm.
It was precisely this musical backing that so horrified and bewildered Dylan’s fans when he first began playing with a band in 1965. The folk revivalists, who regarded rock and roll as commercial fluff, were dismayed by his new direction, and for the next year, during which he toured incessantly, Dylan was routinely greeted by a roiling ocean of boos, jeers, and catcalls. As Wilentz points out, however, Dylan had in fact
explicitly honored traditional folk music, with its myth, contradictions, and chaos; indeed, insofar as the folk revival prized old-time music for its supposed simplicity as well as purity, Dylan’s break, and even his turn to surrealism and electricity, can be seen as an effort to preserve the wilder spirit of folk music.
There is a telling vignette in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, in which a gaggle of morose young Brits, shuffling out of a venue after one of Dylan’s 1966 electric shows, complain about what they have just witnessed. “I came here to see Bob Dylan,” scoffs one young man, “not a pop group.” To which someone else in the crowd responds, “There aren’t many pop groups like that.”
Both these new books devote themselves for the most part to the long postlapsarian phase of Dylan’s career, which began with his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966. Dylan has certainly made some astonishing records since then, most notably The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, and Blood on the Tracks (1975); but for years at a stretch—from 1971 to 1975, from 1978 to 1989—he went into creative tailspin, releasing album after album of generally insipid material.7 One of the pleasures of Marcus’s book, which gives a journalistic record of this miserable decline, is the eloquent bitterness with which he registers each new low in the Dylan oeuvre.
“What is this shit?” is the famous, and entirely warranted, opening sentence of his piece on Dylan’s Self- Portrait (1970), that congealed and tepid slurry of studio outtakes, recycled hits, and perfunctory cover versions, which at the time seemed to signal an abnegation of artistic seriousness. Bemoaning the album’s utter lack of dynamism or invention, Marcus says that
unless [Dylan] returns to the marketplace with a sense of vocation and the ambition to keep up with his own gifts, the music of the [mid-Sixties] will continue to dominate his records, whether he releases them or not.
And this is exactly what happened: as the years went by, Dylan found himself trapped inside the aspic of his own legend.
Of the strident, overeager live album Hard Rain (1976), Marcus writes, “Dylan’s presence [on stage] was overshadowing any questions of musical quality.” (Compare what Marcus wrote of the bloated 1970s Elvis in his first book, the magisterial Mystery Train: “Elvis’s performance of his myth is so satisfying to his audience that he is left with no musical identity whatsoever.”) This question of musical quality is not one that Marcus himself shies away from: “Dylan doesn’t phrase, he bleats,” he writes of Dylan’s voice on Hard Rain, “and for the first time in his career, he sounds stupid.” Later in the review, Dylan’s vocals are likened (not injudiciously) to those of “a dying horse.”
By the time we get to the sterile slickness of Empire Burlesque (1985), possibly Dylan’s nadir, Marcus seems to have all but given up on his former hero, whose voice he describes as “cracker-barrel wise” and that of “a crank who wants you to believe he’s seen it all but really just wants to complain that he hasn’t liked what he’s seen.” Such phrases demonstrate one of Marcus’s principal virtues as a critic: the aphoristic and figurative wit that enables him to capture in language what a piece of music actually sounds like. (Elsewhere he rather magnificently describes the sound of Blonde on Blonde as that “of a man trying to stand up in a drunken boat, and, for the moment, succeeding.”) Marcus is also admirably severe: he knows that not to hold Dylan to the highest possible standard is to condescend to him. Glancing longingly back at the efflorescence of the mid-Sixties in his Empire Burlesque review, he observes that Dylan was then “rooted in history and rooted in the present moment,” but that “there are no roots in his music now.”
A search for past influences is what seems to have led Dylan in the early Nineties to record two albums made up entirely of old folk and blues standards, several of which—“Love Henry,” “Stackalee,” “Frankie and Albert”—he’d encountered over three decades earlier on the Anthology of American Folk Music. Both Marcus and Wilentz view these records, Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which received little attention when they were first released and to some extent remain buried in the Dylan canon, as the hinge of his career. Having spent most of the Eighties making music that, in its bright and airless overproduction, felt slavishly up-to-the-minute (and thus redundant the very next), Dylan now returned to songs that, in one form or another, had been around for generations before his birth.
Dylan’s star began to rise again with the two tradition-steeped albums that followed, Time Out of Mind (1997) and “Love and Theft” (2001). Both are made up of Dylan originals, and yet the degree to which some of the new compositions appropriated riffs, chord changes, melodies, and lyrics from older music is striking: on tracks like “Cry a While” (which, as Wilentz points out, lifts the melody from the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Stop and Listen Blues,” recorded in 1930) or “Mississippi” (whose chorus lyrics are taken from the old work song “Rosie”), Dylan seems to flaunt his borrowings as never before. His voice, too, was bursting with inheritance: no longer “cracker-barrel wise,” it had grown into a rustling, honeyed croak that recalls the bluesman Charlie Patton one moment and crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra the next. Dylan had rediscovered what was central to his genius: the “ability to write and sing,” as Wilentz puts it, “in more than one era at once.”
Wilentz has valuable things to say about Dylan but his prose can be careless and flat-footed and he never brings the music itself to life in the way Marcus is able to. At moments Bob Dylan in America also lacks the requisite critical detachment. Since 2001, Wilentz has served as the “historian-in-residence” at Dylan’s official website (www.bobdylan.com), where several of the chapters in this book first appeared. It is thus not surprising that Wilentz’s commentaries, especially those on Dylan’s recent work, should err on the side of giddy approbation. The following is not untypical:
After the critical triumph of Love and Theft in 2001…, [Dylan] began turning out fresh work like a man possessed. Not a year passed over the ensuing seven when he failed to produce something of significance, including two albums of original music…and Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan, the most original radio show to appear on the air in recent memory…. All the while, he performed, on average, more than a hundred shows a year, and never fewer than ninety-seven—a punishing schedule almost unheard of these days for an artist of Dylan’s stature and renown, let alone one who was past sixty.
Such cheerleading is of little use to anyone besides Dylan himself, who now, in his late sixties, bedecked with laurels, seems content to hide behind the hagiographic projections that are directed at him from all sides, whether in the form of Todd Haynes’s fawning and complacent biopic I’m Not There (2007) or the reams of Dylanology that continue to appear.
What both these books do capture well is the combination in Dylan of plainness and elusive exceptionalism, the way he can seem, on the one hand, to submerge his identity in the vastness of tradition, and on the other to brand everything he touches—a twelve-bar blues, a borrowed lyric—with his emphatic singularity. In the introduction to his new book, Marcus recalls seeing Dylan perform for the first time in the summer of 1963, “in a field in New Jersey.” Among the songs Dylan played was “With God on Our Side,” which opens:
Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
Dylan, Marcus writes, did seem ageless and anonymous, “as ordinary as anyone in the audience.” And yet, Marcus continues, “something in his demeanor dared you to pin him down, to sum him up and write him off, and you couldn’t do it.”
Seeger was an ardent leftist who believed that folk songs could be used to foment social revolution, a belief he passed on to his son, Pete, who along with Lomax’s son, Alan, would become an influential figure in the politically engaged folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as an early champion of Bob Dylan. ↩
For more on the Anthology, see Geoffrey O’Brien’s “Recapturing the American Sound,” The New York Review, April 9, 1998, in which he also discusses Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Henry Holt, 1997), which was published in paperback as The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Picador, 2001). As Wilentz mentions in the introduction to his new book, he first came to write about Dylan when Dissent asked him to review Marcus’s book in 1998, and it is an obvious influence on Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz and Marcus have also edited a book together, The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad (Norton, 2005). ↩
While acknowledging the importance of Smith’s Anthology, Dylan has also disputed some of Marcus’s claims. In a 2001 interview he said that, “All those people [Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around. [Marcus] intellectualizes it too much. Performers did know of [the Anthology], but it wasn’t, in retrospect, the monumental iconic recordings at the time that he makes them out to be. It wasn’t like someone discovered this pot of gold somewhere.” Regardless of where he heard them first, it is clear that these songs and artists helped form Dylan’s career. ↩
Many of these songs—”Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Talkin’ New York”—simply took the melody and chord structure of songs from the Anthology, or other folk standards, and added new lyrics, often about contemporary political events. Accusations of plagiarism have been leveled at Dylan throughout his career, but as Pete Seeger pointed out in the early Sixties, Dylan’s method of songwriting was typical of what he called the “folk process,” by which traditional songs are changed and updated as they pass from one generation to another. ↩
The interview continues: “There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels—they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper—they’re going to die. Songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘And I Love You, Porgy’—they’re not folk music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.” See Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (Warner Books, 2006), p. 98. ↩
There is a steadily expanding library of books devoted to explicating Dylan’s lyrics, of which Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks (Ecco, 2004) is by far the most interesting, ambitious, and lovingly attentive. The indefatigable Clinton Heylin has written two workmanlike volumes, Revolution in the Air (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and Still on the Road (Chicago Review Press, 2010), both of them blizzards of trivia, though Heylin is concerned less with exegesis than with establishing when and where each and every song was written and recorded. Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Continuum, 2006; revised edition 2008) are both very much worthwhile. ↩
Although there are undoubtedly some fine songs stranded on these dire albums, such as “Changing of the Guards” from Street Legal (1978), “Pressing On” from Saved (1980), “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love (1981), “Jokerman” from Infidels (1983), and “Brownsville Girl” (cowritten with the playwright Sam Shepard) from Knocked Out Loaded (1986. ↩