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“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 marvellous achievement….If you want to know the facts consult the history books; if you want to know what it felt like ask a singer: so said the great song collector and archivist Frank Heart, and it is this relationship between fact and feeling that is at the heart of this book, the relationship and tension between the artist and the historian.”
Philip King, the Irish musician, writer, and film director, plays with the legendary band Scullion.
FIRST U.S. REVIEWS
“Wilentz’s unselfconscious ability to discuss the ultra-politically conscious Copland and the influential McTell, who would exert such a pull on Dylan that he became the subject of a celebrated song, also says something about the breadth of his cultural erudition. Here is scholarship that successfully slips the bonds of specialty and pretension.”
“Wilentz has written a book at once deeply felt and historically layered that shows how Dylan’s artistic practice is embedded in and responsive to powerful but subtle currents of American culture….In the second half of the book, Wilentz achieves the payoff for breaking away from a linear sense of time — for Dylan, and for himself as a historian. The chapters that explore the cultural resonance of the songs “Blind Willie McTell” and “Delia” are gems of thick description, unpacking lyrical associations and discovering the heartaches, crimes and joys of people whose stories might have remained buried in the past.”
“Among those who write regularly about Dylan, Wilentz possesses the rare virtues of modesty, nuance and lucidity, and for that he should be celebrated and treasured. If I may extend the ‘Moby-Dick’ metaphor just a little here (I know Melville’s battered old blubber trove is not the freshest-smelling symbol in American letters), Wilentz is a whale watcher rather than a whale hunter. He is content to observe rather than possess…he centerpiece of his book is a vivid look at the “Blonde on Blonde” sessions, during which the musicians teased and groped their way toward the album’s “thin, wild mercury sound,” in Dylan’s famous description. Wilentz talked to several of the players, and I bet his account is nearly as good as the one Dylan didn’t give us in ‘Chronicles.’”
Perhaps the fullest example of what Dylan has absorbed came in his 2002 return to the Newport Folk Festival, where he’d been booed for going electric in 1965. “There were ghosts all over the place,” Wilentz says. “You could feel them.”
He goes on: “We’re all wondering, what’s he gonna do, what’s he gonna do? It was a strange performance. It wasn’t technically brilliant. But he played a festival’s array of styles. It was like ‘Here’s American music, guys. You want a festival? I’m going to give you a festival.’ And then the ghosts began to me to become corporeal. You know, already there were everybody from Tennessee Ernie Ford and God knows who, not all Newport people by any means, but Son House and Muddy Waters; they were all kind of assuming shape again.” Wilentz says that by the time Dylan encored with the Grateful Dead’s arrangement of “Not Fade Away,” the spirits of Buddy Holly and Jerry Garcia had joined the mix.
That show, the discussion of which comes near the end of “Bob Dylan in America,” can stand for just some of the historical strands that come together in Dylan. “People think of it as Americana,” Wilentz says, “which is a term I can’t stand. Or roots music. Or all those labels. It’s not, it’s none of that. I mean, it’s American music. It’s the music this country has created out of blood, sweat and tears, and he picks all of that up and raises it, lowers it, he takes it and makes it his own.”
JEFFREY BROWN: There are a lot of interesting, great set pieces that you have in the book. I’m thinking particularly of the “Blonde on Blonde” recording in Nashville and in New York, but I want to pick out later, the more recent Dylan…. You pick up on “Love and Theft”….You refer to the modern minstrel, I think is the term you used. What does that mean? What do you see in this Dylan that emerged even in the last 10 years with a kind of rejuvenation?
SEAN WILENTZ: Yeah, Dylan had kind of come to, he had said himself the end of his rope at the end of the ’80s, and then began a period of recalibration or resurgence or renewal beginning in the early ’90s….It’s a permutation, it’s a change in what he’s really always been doing which is to take an American song, an American folk music, and not just American folk music, and to inhabit it and to turn it into something that is his own. What I think we are seeing now is a much more self-conscious, much denser appropriation and rearrangement of shards of American poetry, not just American poetry, ancient classical Roman poetry, and American music as wide and as broad as songs like the famous old folk song called “Rosie,” which shows up in the song “Mississippi,” to Bing Crosby, things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Bob Dylan…. I think he reconnected with his own roots, his own soul, his musical soul, when he released a couple of acoustical albums at the beginning of the ’90s and then he was off and running having found something new again, and that’s what we’re hearing now.
From the REVIEW IN THE TIMES OF LONDON, 8/29/10, BY BRYAN APPLEYARD
“[Wilentz] mixes his history and critical assessments with long, often thrilling accounts of concerts and recording sessions. But the centrepiece of the book is the chapter devoted to one song, Blind Willie McTell…..Wilentz is at his best here because the song is about history, primarily the history of slavery. But it is also a contemporary history about the loss of authenticity in the modern world, a theme to which Dylan repeatedly returns….What this book finally does — this is me, not Wilentz — is establish Dylan as the 20th century’s Walt Whitman.”