Of Thee He Sings

Dylan in 1966.Photo: Rex USA

Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor and author of Bob Dylan in America, has agreed to lead a tour of Dylan’s Greenwich Village, a place he knows better than any other. We visit the singer’s former apartment on West 4th Street, above what’s now a sex shop; the clubs he played along Macdougal Street; the building where he first encountered Allen Ginsberg. “This whole neighborhood has such a long history that there is a sense—for some of us, anyway—of revenants, of ghosts,” says Wilentz, better-heeled than your average tour guide, in Brooks Brothers and custom-made shoes. “Dylan talks about walking around here and thinking that it really is 1880. I don’t mean to be mystical or spooky, but if you know what’s going on, you can’t help but feel it.” Although Wilentz has done plenty of journalism, the Dylan book is a departure from his hardbound oeuvre, which includes a 1,100-page tome on American democracy and biographies of Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Bob Dylan in America may be an unusually rigorous Dylan book, but “it was easier to do than the others,” he says, “because in effect I’ve been doing the research all my life.”

The apartment where Dylan met Ginsberg was just over the 8th Street Bookshop, which Wilentz’s father, Eli, owned and ran from 1947 to 1979. It was Eli’s death that eventually led to Wilentz’s entry into what he calls “Dylan World.” He wrote a piece for Dissent on coping with his grief by listening to Dylan’s 1993 cover of “Lone Pilgrim.” In 2001, Wilentz got a call from someone working on Dylan’s website, asking him to write an essay on the album “Love and Theft,” released on September 11 of that year. “I started making friends in Dylan’s office,” says Wilentz, who gave himself the tongue-in-cheek title of “historian-in-residence” for the website. Around the time Dylan released Chronicles, Vol. 1, the first part of his memoirs, Wilentz decided to take a whack at his own book—but from a scholarly perspective. He’s avoided doing interviews: “I’d rather sacrifice two or three really cool anecdotes and keep my own position a little bit more dispassionate. What I try to do is read dead people’s mail. That’s what I do for a living.”

Dylan in America is an idiosyncratic biography. One chapter dwells on the socialist-folk Popular Front of the thirties and forties, concluding not with Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s avowed predecessor, but Aaron Copland, whom Dylan never met. There are pages and pages on early American “shape note” music. Dylan zooms in and out of focus, while his conscious and unconscious influences—Ashcan painter Norman Raeben, Blind Willie McTell, a black teenager whose murder inspired an early blues song—collectively get as much ink as the musician himself. Then all of a sudden, violating Wilentz’s no-interview credo, there’s a detailed blow-by-blow of the 1965–66 Blonde on Blonde recording sessions—the goal being, he says, to “make it a historical event rather than a purely mythical one.” It’s an unusual structure 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.

Wilentz isn’t, he insists, a Dylanologist—“Yuck,” he says of the term—a fanboy obsessed with nailing every reference. “Too much of that stuff is written by people who wish they were Bob Dylan instead of themselves … leave the pinning-down to the lepidopterists.” There is, however, one possible “act of projection” to which Wilentz confesses. Dylan, he maintains, is a historian at heart—one who shaped the young author’s conviction in the power of the past. “He discovered something in me and I heard it,” he says, “which is that you can see the past in the present. To me, the collapsing of it is the beginnings of historical consciousness. I can feel it, taste it, and smell it, and so can he.”

Bob Dylan in America
By Sean Wilentz.
Sept. 7. $28.95.

Of Thee He Sings