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Bob Dylan In America Hardcover – September 7, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"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


"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."
Martin Scorsese

"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."
Philip Roth

"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."
Al Kooper

"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."
—Leon Wieseltier

About the Author

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (September 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385529880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385529884
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #269,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 85 people found the following review helpful By Stuart Jefferson TOP 100 REVIEWER on September 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
390 pages including 14 page introduction,318 pages of text, 28 pages of selected readings/notes/ discography, 23 pages of credits and index. There are many (small) b & w photos of both Dylan and other people mentioned, (many unseen before now) interspersed throughout the body of the book, which add a great deal (especially the early photos) to this analysis of specific songs/albums/concerts of Dylan's work.

This book, by Sean Wilentz (who wrote the liner notes for "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall"), is a combination of fact, interpretations, and constructive criticism. Taken together this gives a good, sometimes unique look into Bob Dylan's music in relation to the era (s) that influenced him. His relationship to Dylan goes back to the early days when his father owned a bookstore important to the "beat" generation of writers (Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg in Wilentz' uncle's apartment, upstairs from the family bookstore), and just down the street from The Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha?, important to Dylan's (and many others) burgeoning career. The author places Dylan, beginning in the early 60's, in the context of America and the changes and influences that were already beginning to happen, and would increase rapidly throughout the decade and beyond. Wilentz takes a good, but selected, look at Dylan's writing and his growing performance style throughout specific times in Dylan's career, up to the present time, while not focusing at length on Dylan's place in American life, through the eyes and ears of listeners.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By wogan TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Sean Wilentz looks at Bob Dylan as a historian, as a fan and as one who has written on Dylan's official web site and his liner notes. He has personal recollections of Greenwich Village during the beginnings of the folk movement, so his connections to Dylan and this genre are indisputable.

The one warning that some might desire, is that this is really not a biography of Dylan. The closest the writing comes to that is the astute observation that even though Dylan owned the 60's, he was a product of the 40's and 50's. This is an examination of the influences on him, the history of Dylan's impact on the music world and his `connections to the currents of American history and culture`. The book goes beyond Dylan himself to muse on Dylan's self proclaimed only idol, Woody Guthrie and other musicians and the connection to the beat generation.
The book starts with Aaron Copeland, whose music Dylan uses as an introduction to many of his live performances and then goes on to scrutinize much of Dylan's musical heritage. The second part of the writing commences with a concert the author attended in 1964 at New York's Philharmonic Hall; goes through the years and decades of Bob Dylan's music examining his styles and interpretations and ends with the Christmas recording of 2009.
Those associated professionally with Bob Dylan are well covered, as well as some of his dealings with films such as `Don`t Look Back` and 'Masked and Anonymous`. At times the chronology is a bit jumpy, but nothing that would confuse a reader. There are 28 pages of selected readings, notes and discography and a well done index. There are numerous black and white photos interspersed with the readings, that really help with appeal and understanding as do some well placed footnotes.
This would be a book of attraction to those wanting to learn more about the 60`s late 20th century culture, folk and modern music and of course those who are fans of Bob Dylan himself.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Randall Morrison on September 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Brilliant! Really, the only word for this book. It covers several different phases of Dylans career, but the main focus is on his more recent output. You will especially love it if you are REALLY fascinated by Dylan's output since "Love and Theft", which I believe to be one of the best albums of the last 25 years.

The first two chapters are fantastic background into what other forms of culture have influenced Dylan besides Woody Guthrie, and they are well worth plowing through because from there on it only gets better.

This book gives you a lot of interesting information when it matters, not necessarily chronologically, which makes it a fascinating read. You aren't getting bogged down in encyclopedic facts, just what matters when the subject comes up.

The book gives a remarkable insight as to how and where Dylan's music was influenced by many parts of American musical culture, including minstrel shows, Bing Crosby, Blind Willie McTell...not just Woody Guthrie.

I actually got EXCITED reading the chapter on "Love and Theft" and plan to download a lot of the songs the writer sites as influential to that album, because I've NEVER had more fun listening to any other me Dylan's last few records are better than anything else anyone is currently releasing.

Believe me, this is well worth reading.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moslow on September 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Perhaps I was expecting too much, given that the author is not just a "Dylanologist", but a noted historian. The writing seemed uneven and the interpretive stretches made as to the presumed sources of Dylan's material appears, at various times, much too ponderous. For example, did Dylan take the phrase "Time Out of Mind" from Shakepeare, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, or Warren Zevon?
Does it really matter?
There are times when the writing is crisp and impassioned, such as in the description of the artist's attempts to perform "Blind Willie McTell". There are times when the observations seem to be particularly sharp, such as in the descriptions surrounding most of "Love and Theft". However, there are too many times when the author's storytelling becomes dulled by self-referential comments (where he was: geographically? developmentally? and which concerts he attended); as well as an over-abundance of possible clues as to the origins of Dylan's muse.
Does such a huge emphasis really need to be placed upon Aaron Copeland, Bing Crosby, and the French actor/mime Jean-Louis Barrault?
Then again, that's why Dylan fans need to read the book. For my excitement at the identification of the possible origin of "sucking the blood out of the genius of generosity" (Abe Lincoln); may be your thrill as to hearing about Frank Sinatra's "stylish, hipped-up rendition" of a song which may have influenced another track on the same album. Both observations appear on pages opposite each other.
I suggest you start with page 172, finish to the book's end; the last two chapters effectively tying together the concept of Dylan singing across and through Time, while combining elements of "High" & "Low" culture into his Art; and then work your way back, if you dare.
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