78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A DIFFERENT LOOK INTO BOB DYLAN
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...
Published on September 9, 2010 by Stuart Jefferson
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Critical Interpretation or Speculative Rumination?
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...
Published on September 26, 2010 by Robert Moslow
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78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A DIFFERENT LOOK INTO BOB DYLAN,
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.
The author had access to unreleased recordings, and even the studio logbooks and notes from Dylan's career, and unseen photographs which help immensely in formulating an in depth look into both Dylan's writings and performances. Wilentz has done a good job in putting all of his research into an easy to read (but not strictly chronological), interesting, and informative book. Of great interest, after writing about Aaron Copland's combination of left-leaning politics and music, in the first portion of the book, is how Wilentz places Dylan's work in the context of "The Beat Generation", writers, particularly Allen Ginsberg, and a number of others from this period. The author makes a strong connection between "the beats" and Dylan's early, burgeoning writing style by going back in history to the 1950's, when Ginsberg et al, were becoming an albeit small, but influential force in America. The author places into this context two of Dylan's best albums-"Bringing It All Back Home", and "Highway 61 Revisited".
The vast portion of the remainder of the book is taken up with selected eras of Dylan's work, beginning with Dylan's mid 60's recordings and concerts, and the recording of "Blonde On Blonde" and later concerts (Rolling Thunder Review for example). The author doesn't dwell on the early 60's to a great extent because so much has already been written about this particular time. Wilentz then looks at Dylan selectively up through and into the 90's after his, arguably, fallow period, and how he looked for inspiration in early forms of folk music and country blues. Using individual songs, ("Delia", "Lone Pilgrim" for example), Wilentz paints a good overview of Dylan during this period with his chosen examples of Dylan's work. The author concludes with his critical look at "Love And Theft" at the turn of the century, and ends with Dylan's "Christmas In The Heart' album in 2009-which created quite strong opinions on both Dylan and his current work.
By using individual compositions or a single event, Wilentz constructs a fairly deep, sometimes unique, look into his subject at specific times throughout his long career as an artist. Examples of this are the song "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35", which has a drumbeat in the opening, which is very similar sounding to the opening of the 1966 hit song "They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa". This is a subtle (and later not so subtle) acknowledgment of Dylan's use of what he hears around him, and how he assimilates those sounds into his own work. Wilentz also ties together Dylan and the country blues singer/guitarist "Blind" Willie McTell, and shows the influence old-time country blues had (has) on Dylan's writing. The author, too, looks at "Renaldo and Clara" (and Dylan's other movies), and the influences found throughout, and his desires to produce a movie. The book is not in any strict chronological order-the author at times skips back and forth to make a particular point. At times this style can seem a bit disjointed-one moment you're reading about a particular song/person/event, only to find yourself reading about something from an entirely different era, which Wilentz uses to make his points. Once understanding the authors method of historical (he's a writer of history) analysis, his placement and observations on both Dylan's writing and live performances comes together into one larger picture. In the end this book is well worth reading for the author's placement, and insight, of Dylan in the contexts he has set out. Using Dylan's interest in history, literature, and of course, music, this book does what Wilentz set out to do-take an in depth look at selected periods of Dylan's work. This book should be read by anyone who has followed Dylan,both live and in the studio, through these many years and changes.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do look back,
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.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for fans of recent Dylan,
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 recording...to me Dylan's last few records are better than anything else anyone is currently releasing.
Believe me, this is well worth reading.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Critical Interpretation or Speculative Rumination?,
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. Or, you can get it straight from the "horse's mouth" for the facts & unknown mysteries of how The Bobster creates (Dylan's Chronicles), and the back of the (liner notes) LP Blood on the Tracks, for Pete Hamill's more literary evocation of mood.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars self indulgent and dull,
This review is from: Bob Dylan in America (Paperback)
Got this as a gift. I've been a fan since 1963. I read, then skim read, this book looking for insight and additional information. Instead I was bored. The tone is dry and lifeless and filled with unsubstantiated claims. For example Mr. Wilentz claims: "Dylan would have preferred to play old folk songs with nothing but acoustic instruments... but the programmers decided that traditional music without drums and at least some electric guitar backing would turn off the youthful MTV audience."(page 254) Really? How does he know? And if true why not contrast the Dylan who capitulated to MTV with the Dylan who flipped off the media when he was young. Now that might have been involving. Oh, well. At least Mr. Wilentz reminded me of how well Geoff Muldaur plays the blues.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Explaining the inexplicable,
The linguist Roman Jakobson theorized that language is a sort of meta-entity that existed above us, in the ether, and that humans tap into in order to speak. It's tough not to think of Bob Dylan in the same way--as a sort of radio receiver that picks up on the deepest currents in the American experience and then broadcasts them.
The idea of Bob Dylan as a radio receiver--a conduit for something bigger and deeper than himself--has been around for a while. Allen Ginsberg called him a shaman, and Bob Johnston, who produced arguably Dylan's greatest albums, said, "I don't think Dylan had a lot to do with it... He can't help what he's doing. I mean, he's got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that."
Sean Wilentz, one of America's finest historians, in this excellent new book, does a lot to both enhance, and correct, this conception of Bob Dylan.
Wilentz has pretty impeccable Dylan creds. His family moved in the same New York folk-progressive circles as Dylan did, and, as the story goes, Dylan met Allen Ginsberg in Wilentz's uncle's apartment. He also received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to Dylan's 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert album. He knows what he's talking about, and he writes superbly.
Wilentz places America's bard in some initially startling, but perfectly logical, contexts--tracing a line of descent from Aaron Copland's avant-garde, leftist youth and later appropriation of the cowboy mythos to Dylan's work isn't one that I'd thought of, but it makes good sense. His historian's training leads him to meticulously recount Dylan's influences, and to work backward through the musical traditions that informed and inspired Dylan. And his sensitivity for, and (not uncritical) appreciation of, his subject gives him a unique view into the process by which Dylan took these influences, reworked them into something new, and in the process, made them uniquely his.
In doing so, he reframes Dylan as less a radio receiver than an alchemist--a master magician who takes such disparate influences as obscure blues musicians, Rimbaud, Shakespeare, surrealism, labor and protest songs and ideology, the Bible, Japanese gangster stories, film noir, and Abraham Lincoln's lesser known political speeches and mixmasters them into a body of work that, weirdly, comes as close to divining America's collective soul as anyone ever has.
At times, the narrative moves perilously close to simply annotating all the references in Dylan's songs, but Wilentz generally recovers from the tendency to simply catalog the minutiae and returns to the bigger picture. And in doing so, he gives us a book that is not only an analysis of Bob Dylan, but an insight into the artistic process itself.
There are times when explaining something takes all the magic out of it, but there are times when explaining something actually increases our wonderment. "Bob Dylan in America" falls neatly into the latter category. Learning more about Bob Dylan's influences and his ability to syncretize them and make the result relevant only makes those of us who love him appreciate him all the more.
Bob Dylan is more than a musician and poet of genius. He's a cultural phenomenon. As Walt Whitman said about himself, "[He's] large... [he] contains multitudes." His influence is almost incalculable, and we need a penetrating and discerning social critic to help us understand him, and thus ourselves, in a post-Dylan age. Luckily, in Sean Wilentz, we got precisely that.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Secures a place in the pantheon of Bob Dylan books,
This review is from: Bob Dylan in America (Hardcover)
The "in America" aspect of this book refers primarily to where Bob Dylan fits in America's already established cultural heritage. On that basis, Wilentz opens with a 30 page essay mainly about the composer Aaron Copland. Copland's influence on Dylan is surely far less than that of a great many other musicians who came before - including Chuck Berry, whose music has also been played to Dylan audiences pre-concert, and gets just one brief mention in this book - but Wilentz is successful in demonstrating a link from Copland to the Seeger and generally left-wing line in folk music, and to some of the Beat Generation writers and poets. Links from them to Dylan are much more readily demonstrated, and Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others feature in Wilentz's second chapter. In that chapter Wilentz also takes in some (until recent years unsuspected) influences such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Wilentz grew up in New York City just as Dylan began to make his mark, and he had family connections with some of those who first worked with Dylan. His descriptions of the key Greenwich Village locations and personalities have the ring of authenticity, as do those of concerts he was fortunate to attend at the Philharmonic Hall (1964: recently released on CD), at the Forest Hills Stadium shortly after the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and a Rolling Thunder concert ten years beyond that. Much more recently, he has spoken to Charlie McCoy and Al Kooper, greatly benefiting his account of the Highway 61 Revisited thru' Blonde on Blonde period, and making his chapter on recording Blonde on Blonde one of the highlights of the book.
McCoy also contributed much to John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, and Al Kooper to New Morning, but Wilentz professes a loss of interest between 1966 and Infidels (1983) - though did drop in for the Rolling Thunder Revue, which owed a lot to Blood on the Tracks and Desire - and only comes on strong again for the seven studio albums since 1992, plus Blind Willie McTell, which was recorded for Infidels but not released until 1991. The chapter on blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie McTell does much to validate the whole book. It is immediately followed by a similar chapter on Blind Willie's song Delia, and the sad story behind that, and with that this book's place in the pantheon begins to look secure. A similar study based on Lone Pilgrim doesn't work quite so well, but we are finally won over by the haunting Nettie Moore. For those mystified by the line, "I'm going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog", one of the many excellent photographs in the book reveals the point in Mississippi where the Southern Railway and the Yazoo Delta Railway cross over. Unfortunately, Wilentz doesn't go just a little further and mention that in blues mythology the YD of the YDR came to stand for yellow dog.
This is a worthwhile read for those already well versed in Dylan, his music, and something of the folk and blues backgrounds. If you aren't there yet, probably you should first delve into all the principal albums, add Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, read Dylan's own Chronicles, Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic, and possibly also Robert Shelton's No Direction Home (even though it stops in the mid 1980's). Then you will be ready for Bob Dylan in America, which will itself point you to much more.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lone Pilgrim redux,
If you 1)are a fan of Dylan 2)have more than a passing interest in American history 3)enjoy a well thought out and finely written book involving both 1 & 2, then this is the book. An astute observation of one the great poets/songwirters of the 20th/21st c. and a fascinating analysis of his inspirations and thought processes. One of the beauties of satellite radio is the opportunity to listen to Bob's 'Theme Time Radio Hour'in which Bob spins a mixture of old and new American music whle also supplying humor, insight and information in a style all his own. It is, like the man, intelligent, thoughtful, funny as hell and even poignant. Willentz' book is an excellent addition to any library, offering one plenty of inspiration to go back to Dylan stuff you thought you knew and listen to it again--with new ears. Made me appreciate Dylan more, but also caused me to gain a new measure, of my already healthy respect, for Bob's place in the history, life and growth of this great nation. Thank you, Sean.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is great when you already know the details,
Wilentz is not only a scholar, reporter, and observer of Dylan here. He is weaving an anaylsis of Dylan's work and our constant wondering of what makes Bob tick? How does he arrive at his writing? Sure, we can all analyze Dylan's lyrics, but the singer, himself, has never been very forthcoming in answering the question, "Where do your ideas come from?" Dylan's response is more often than not a shrug or something smart.
Wilents was there in the beginning when Dylan first met the Village vanguard in the early 1960's. He was there for the Carnegie Hall concerts in 1964. He was there for the transitional periods that covered Dylan's move from Folkie to rock star. Wilentz offers, what I see, as the strongest persuasive line of thought as to how that transfiguration began and carried through.
On the other side, surely not a negative connotation, is the truth that this is not for the Dylan novice. The reader needs to have a basic fundamental knowledge of Dylan's history and his contribution to music. I found that it helped to have a great many songs at my disposal. Luckily, his material is so accesible that this isn't a hard task; however, one may need to refresh one's memory of "The Basement Tapes".
There is no trash tossed nor mud slinged, but it is quite intriguing.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read for Dylan and Americana music fans,
Having followed Bob Dylan's music for now over 30 years, it sometimes seems that it has come out in a place and in a way that is completely unexpected. This book does an interesting job of knitting together the various phases and stages of Dylan's performing and recording career, along with some historical digressions on the musicians that appear to have influenced Dylan's songwriting and music. Wilentz has a good ear and has spent considerable time and attention to the music played on the records and in concert.
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Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Paperback - October 4, 2011)