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Bob Dylan In America [Hardcover]

Sean Wilentz
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)

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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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Popular Front and Aaron Copland's America
Early in October 2001, Bob Dylan began a two-month concert tour of the northern United States. In his first performances since the terrorist attacks of September 11, Dylan debuted many of the songs on his new album, "Love and Theft," including the prescient song of disaster, "High Water (for Charley Patton)." Columbia Records, eerily, had released "Love and Theft" on the same day that the terrorists struck. How, if at all, would Dylan now respond to the nation's trauma? Would he, for once, speak to the audience? What would he play?
The new tour had no opening act, but as a concert prelude the audience heard (as had become commonplace at Dylan's shows) a prerecorded selection of orchestral music. And on this tour, Dylan began playing what may have seemed a curious choice: a recording of the "Hoe-Down" section of Aaron Copland's Rodeo. Then Dylan and his band took the stage and, with acoustic instruments, further acknowledged the awfulness of the moment, while also marking Dylan's changes and continuities over the years, by playing the country songwriter Fred Rose's "Wait for the Light to Shine":
When the road is rocky and you got a heavy load
            Wait for the light to shine
For the rest of the month, through fifteen shows, Dylan opened with "Wait for the Light to Shine," often after hitting the stage to "Hoe-Down." He would continue to play snatches of Rodeo at his concerts for several tours to come, and now and then he would throw in the opening blasts of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or bits of Appalachian Spring. Copland's music from the 1940s served as Dylan's call to order, his American invocation. Sixty years on, whether he knew it or not, Dylan had closed a mysterious circle, one that arced back through the folk-music revival where he got his start to the left-wing New York musical milieu of the Great Depression and World War II.
Anyone familiar with Dylan's music knows about its connections to the 1930s and 1940s through the influences of Woody Guthrie and, to a lesser extent, Pete Seeger. But there are other connections as well, to a broader world of experimentation with American music and radical politics during the Depression years and after. These larger connections are at times quite startling, especially during the mid-1930s, when shared leftist politics brought together in New York a wide range of composers and musicians not usually associated with one another. Thereafter, many of the connections are elliptical and very difficult to pin down. They sometimes involve not direct influence but shared affinities and artistic similarities recognized only in retrospect. Yet they all speak to Dylan's career, and illuminate his artistic achievement, in ways that Guthrie's and Seeger's work alone do not. The most important of these connections leads back to Aaron Copland and his circle of politically radical composers in the mid-1930s.
On March 16, 1934, Copland participated in a concert of his own compositions, sponsored by the Composers' Collective of the Communist Party-affiliated Workers Music League and held at the party's Pierre Degeyter Club on Nineteenth Street in New York. Copland was still known, at age thirty-three, a decade after first making his mark, as a young, iconoclastic, modernist composer. The collective, with which Copland was closely associated, had been founded in 1932 to nurture the development of proletarian music, and it consisted of about thirty members. The Degeyter Club took its name from the composer of the melody of "The Internationale."
The review of the concert in the Communist newspaper Daily Worker praised Copland for his "progress from [the] ivory tower" and hailed his difficult Piano Variations, written in 1930, as a major, "undeniably revolutionary" work, even though Copland "was not 'conscious' of this at the time." A few months later, Copland, increasingly drawn to the leftist composers and musicians, won a songwriting contest, cosponsored by the collective and the pro-Communist periodical New Masses, for composing a quasi-modernist accompaniment to the militant poem "Into the Streets May First," written by the poet Alfred Hayes, who is best-known today for his lyrics to the song "Joe Hill." In the 1950s, Copland would publicly disown the piece as "the silliest thing I did." At the time, though, he was proud enough of what he called "my communist song" to bring it to the attention of his friend the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, and to note that it had been republished in the Soviet Union. The Daily Worker's music reviewer later recalled that the contest judges agreed that Copland's song was "a splendid thing."
That reviewer, who was one of the founders of the Composers' Collective and wrote under the pseudonym Carl Sands, was the Harvard-trained composer, professor, and eminent musicologist Charles Seeger. At this point, Seeger, a musical modernist, had little use for traditional folk music as a model for revolutionary culture. "Many folksongs are complacent, melancholy, defeatist," he wrote, "intended to make the slaves endure their lot-pretty, but not the stuff for a militant proletariat to feed on." A year later, though, the Communist Party, on instructions from the Comintern, abandoned its hyper-militant politics and avant-garde artistic leanings in favor of the broad political and cultural populism of the so-called Popular Front. The Composers' Collective duly folded in 1936, but Seeger took the shift in stride. In 1935, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., to work as an adviser to the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration, the forerunner of the New Deal's Farm Security Administration; and he and his second wife, the avant-garde composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, were able to collaborate with their friend John Lomax and his son Alan in helping to build the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. In addition to collecting and transcribing traditional songs that were in danger of disappearing, the archive and its friends would encourage the development of folk music as a tool for radical politics-efforts that eventually helped inspire Bob Dylan and the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
Charles's son Peter, then a teenager, had accompanied his father and stepmother to hear Copland discourse at the Degeyter Club, and during the summer of 1935 he traveled with his father to a square dance and music festival in Asheville, North Carolina, run by the legendary folklorist and mountain musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The youngster was already a crack ukulele player, but in Asheville he heard traditional folk music for the first time, played by Lunsford on a cross between a mandolin and a five-string banjo-and it changed his life forever.
A few years later, after dropping out of Harvard and working under Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, Pete Seeger teamed up with a revolving commune of folk artists, including a young songwriter discovered and recorded by Lomax, Woody Guthrie, to form the leftist Almanac Singers, who promoted union organizing, racial justice, and other causes with their topical songs. (The supervisor for one of the Almanacs' recording sessions in 1942, Earl Robinson, had written the tunes for "Joe Hill" and the Popular Front classic "Ballad for Americans"-and in 1935 he had studied piano with Copland at the Workers Music League's school.) In the late 1940s, the Almanac Singers evolved into the Weavers.
The Weavers' recordings would later prove essential in introducing a younger generation, including Bob Dylan, to the music of Woody Guthrie and in sparking the broader folk-music revival. But the Weavers were not the only influential musical descendants of the Composers' Collective-and not the only ones drawn to American folk music.
Like the Seegers, Aaron Copland continued his musical career with his politics intact. After winning his Communist song award in 1934, Copland spent the summer with his teenage lover, the photographer and aspiring violinist Victor Kraft, at a cabin his cousin owned in Lavinia, Minnesota, alongside Lake Bemidji and just to the west of the Mesabi Iron Range. Copland worked hard on his abstract and purposefully radical formal work, Statements for Orchestra, but also relaxed and took in what he called the "amusing town" of Bemidji, nearby. As he told a radical friend in New York, the amusements included some political escapades:
It began when Victor spied a little wizened woman selling a Daily Worker on the street corners . . . From that, we learned to know the farmers who were Reds around these parts, attended an all-day election campaign meeting of the C.P. unit, partook of their picnic supper and [I] made my first political speech! . . . I was being drawn, you see, into the political struggle with the peasantry! I wish you could have seen them-the true Third Estate, the very material that makes revolution . . . When S. K. Davis, Communist candidate for Gov. in Minn. came to town and spoke in the public park, the farmers asked me to talk to the crowd. It's one thing to think revolution, or talk about it to one's friends, but to preach it from the streets-OUT LOUD-Well, I made my speech (Victor says it was a good one) and I'll probably never be the same!
The "good one" for the Communist candidate in Bemidji was, as far as we know, the last political stump speech Copland ever delivered, and his slightly bemused, slightly awkward, and maybe self-ironic description-"the peasantry"? "the true Third Estate"? in northern Minnesota?-makes it sound out of character. But Copland and Kraft did seek out the "Reds around these parts" and joined in their political activity. "The summer of 1934," Copland's most thorough biographer writes, "found him no mere fe... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From AudioFile

Bob Dylan has been the subject of many books and justifiably so as his vast body of work plays an important part in the scope of the American musical experience. Sean Wilentz--who, as a teenager growing up in Greenwich Village, was in the Dylan camp early--provides enough anecdotal evidence to make clear Dylan's inscrutable charms, skimming eras and drawing parallels with blues artists like Blind Willie McTell as he describes the making of such masterpieces as BLONDE ON BLONDE and BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Wilentz's cool tenor never ceases to assure the listener that he's highly engaged with his subject matter, and the production is further enhanced by the inclusion of several snippets of actual Dylan music, a first in the world of audiobooks. J.S.H. © AudioFile 2010, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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