Bob Dylan In America
By Sean Wilentz
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385529884, 400pp.)
Publication Date: September 7, 2010
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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.
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.
"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....Wilentz is very, very good on the actual music. In fact, the 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."—Bruce Handy in The New York Times Book Review
"In this often revelatory new study, Wilentz locates Dylan's work in the context of some surprising influences....The greatest gift for Dylan fans, however, is Wilentz's detailed account of the making of 1966's 'Blonde on Blonde'....Unless Dylan himself writes about it in the fabled Chronicles: Volume Two, this is the definitive word on the creation of his greatest album."—Andy Green in Rolling Stone
"Bob Dylan in America, a new biography of the singer-songwriter by distinguished cultural [and] political historian Sean Wilentz, gives an enjoyably thorough, convincing explanation of why Dylan's new 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 Minnesorta and ferociously ambitious for his art. It's an extraordinary, resonant intersection of subject and biographer....Where Wilentz excels is in teasing out the origins of Dylan's artistic impulses, the context in which they arose and flowered, the multiple sources of his art."—Tim Rutten in The Los Angeles Times
"Another book about Bob Dylan! Is there any more to be said? The answer is, of course, yes, and who better to say it than Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor of American history?...What this book finally does -- this is me, not Wilentz -- is establish Dylan as the 20th century's Walt Whitman. Like Whitman he sings the songs of America in the conviction that they can be said in no other way. And, like Whitman, he commits himself to travelling the roads of America, looking and remembering. From the shelves full of Dylan books this and one other -- Christopher Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin -- are the ones to read. This is also one to look at: the pictures are cunningly well chosen."—Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times (UK)
"Like many a quirkily brilliant music critic...Mr. Wilentz chooses pet aspects of his subject's career and then invests them with the requisite importance....Mr. Wilentz's vast knowledge of Dylan performances touchingly conveys his nearly lifelong reverence for his subject."—Janet Maslin in The New York Times
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA
"A panoramic vision of Bob Dylan, his music, his shifting place in American culture, from multiple angles. In fact, reading Sean Wilentz’ Bob Dylan in America is as thrilling and surprising as listening to a great Dylan song."
"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."
"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."
"This should have been impossible. Writing about Bob Dylan's music, and fitting it into the great crazy quilt of American culture, Sean Wilentz sews a whole new critical fabric, part history, part close analysis, and all heart. What he writes, as well as anyone ever has, helps us enlarge Dylan's music by reckoning its roots, its influences, its allusive spiritual contours. This isn't Cliff Notes or footnotes or any kind of academic exercise. It's not a critic chinning on the high bar. It's one artist meeting another, kickstarting a dazzling conversation."
—Jay Cocks, screenwriter for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE GANGS OF NEW YORK
"Sean Wilentz is one of the few great American historians. His political and social histories of American Democracy are masterful and magisterial. In this work, he turns his attention to the artistic genius of Bob Dylan – and the result is 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
"Sean Wilentz makes us think about Bob Dylan’s half-century of work in new ways. Combining a scholar’s depth with a sense of mischief appropriate to the subject, Wilentz hears new associations in famous songs and sends us back to listen to Dylan’s less familiar music with fresh insights. 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.
"Sean Wilentz’s beautiful book sets a new standard for the cultural history of popular music in America. He loves the music and he loves America, but his loves do not blind him, they open his eyes. In Wilentz’s erudite and lively account, Dylan’s music, and folk music, and rock music, are all indelibly woven into the whole story of an entire country. This book is chocked with new contexts for old pleasures. There are surprises and illuminations on almost every page. A great historian has written a history of the culture that formed him. Like Dylan, Wilentz is a deep and probing American voice. Bob Dylan’s America is Bob Dylan’s good luck, and ours. It is an extraordinary affirmation of singing and strumming and feeling and learning and believing."