Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bob Dylan's America

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan and The Rise of American Democracy has a new book: Bob Dylan in America. Time Magazine writes, that Prof. Wilentz "traces Dylan's influences across wide swaths of 20th-century history and culture — from the socialist movement of the 1930s to Bing Crosby's Christmas carols — to explore his place in America, and America's place in his music."

From Time Magazine:  
Let's get one thing straight. This is not a biography of Bob Dylan.
No, not at all. I never wanted to write a biography of Dylan because there are so many good ones already out there. This focuses on his influences and the way he has drawn from different aspects of American culture.
You're the in-house Dylan historian on his official website, BobDylan.com. How did you get that job?
I did a little bit of writing about him in the '90s for a magazine. Around 2001 I got a call from BobDylan.com asking me to write something for the website about his new album Love and Theft. I said I'd only write about it if I liked it, and I did. So I wrote that, and then I wrote the liner notes to the release of his 1964 Philharmonic Hall live concert album — which I'd actually attended — which got nominated for a Grammy. I didn't win, but I got to go to L.A. and hang out with Alicia Keys and Usher and Green Day, which is a weird sort of experience for a Princeton professor.

In your book, you liken Bob Dylan to Picasso.
There are some artists who stay the same their whole careers. Their paintings or their songs never stray much from one sound or look. But then there are artists who take these sharp turns into uncharted territory. Picasso is one of them and Dylan is one of them.

What are some of Dylan's sharp turns?
Over the years, his style changes in seemingly dramatic ways that often disturb or unsettle his loyal fanbase. He moved from protest, statement-oriented tunes to more personal songs, then from folk to rock 'n' roll at the Newport Folk Festival. For a while, he got into black gospel music from the deep South. Later he became an evangelical Christian. He hits a kind of barren period in the 1980s. Then, his creative outburst over the last 10 years sounds unlike anything else he's done.


What about Bob Dylan, the crafted persona? You say he is a character, a performance. But on stage he seems so effortless.
A great performer is someone who can take a style and make it real. That's what Dylan has managed to do all along. When you go to see him live, he knows it's a show and you're there to be entertained. He's putting on an act to perform his art, and that act includes his boots, his hat and the way he is standing. He alters his intonation and the way he plays around with the songs almost every time. People get upset that "The Times They Are A-Changing" doesn't sound like it did on the record.

Well the song is called "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" so...
Exactly! How can you expect a performance of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to not itself change?


Your dad owned a bookshop in Greenwich Village during the 1960s so you actually met many famous beat figures. In fact, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg met in an apartment right above that bookstore. Growing up, did you realize the significance of what you were witnessing?
I just thought it was normal. When you're 10 years old you think that whatever way you live is average. My dad owned a bookshop with his brother and it was a crossroads of New York literary life in the 1960s. There was a big buzz in the air, a movement that would later be called "the counterculture" and I witnessed that happening, but I also had this double life because my family still lived in working-class Brooklyn. I could tell that not everywhere was as vibrant — in terms of art, music and literature — as the Village. But I didn't realize the historical meaning at the time, no.

If you had to describe Bob Dylan's artistic significance to someone who had never heard him — or to someone who had, but maybe didn't like the way he sang, or didn't like his folk music — what would you say?
The thing about Dylan is that he can write songs that are tender and tough at the same time. He is a man who writes with a mixture of defiance and vulnerability that comes close to explaining what it means to be human. He sings about the human experience. That's why he's a poet.

Read it all here.

2 comments:

Reformation said...

Dylan, the historian, theologian, exegete, sociologist, psychologist, and inter-disciplinary academic--across several disciplines--worthy of consideration.

NOT!

Please, be more academic.

Dylan is a plucky guitarist. Yawn.

BabyBlue said...

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Well, I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die

I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

The walls of pride are high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away

One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

I found my world, found my world in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
There are some kind of things you can never kill

It’s you and you only I been thinking about
But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared

Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

B. Dylan 1997