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Bob Dylan in America Paperback – October 4, 2011

3.4 out of 5 stars 51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Wilentz’s book stands apart . . . in the lucidity of its prose, the rigor of its research and convincing originality of the place he assigns his subject in the context of American cultural history. . . . Here is scholarship that successfully slips the bonds of specialty and pretension.” —Los Angeles Times
“Author Sean Wilentz combines a lifelong music fan’s enthusiasm with a history detective’s doggedness to unearth Dylan’s entire root system. . . . The book is at once a time-hopping biography; a catalog of Dylan’s myriad, eclectic influences . . . and a primer on American music.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Not just another biography of the chameleon folkie-rock-star-poet-troubadour. . . . At once deeply felt and historically layered.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Among those who write about Dylan, Wilentz possesses the rare virtues of modesty, nuance and lucidity, and for that he should be celebrated and treasured.” —The New York Times Book Review 

“A panoramic vision of Bob Dylan, his music, his shifting place in American culture, from multiple angles. In fact, reading Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is as thrilling and surprising as listening to a great Dylan song.” Martin Scorsese

“Extraordinary. . . . With Wilentz, the world around, and inside the head of, Bob Dylan becomes an aperture into the deeper meaning of the American experience. . . . Wilentz has managed to write both the most important book on American history and the most important book on American music in recent memory.” —PopMatters.com
“An enjoyably thorough, convincing explanation why Dylan’s 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 Minnesota and ferociously ambitious for his art.” —Los Angeles Times

“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

“Passionate and informative.” —The New York Review of Books
 “A tour de force. . . . By the end, he’s masterfully … offer[ed] not so much an image of Dylan’s place in America as a carefully calibrated lens with which to see it for yourself.” —Newsweek

“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

“[Bob Dylan in America’s] unusual structure [is] 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.” —New York Magazine
“A reading of Dylan’s work within the wider framework of American culture—a [topic] Wilentz . . . tackles with vigor.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Wilentz lays out nuanced arguments on the profound effect Dylan has had on expanding the American consciousness in his five-decade career as a singer and songwriter.” —The Newark Star-Ledger
“[Wilentz] mixes his history and critical assessments with long, often thrilling accounts of concerts and recording sessions. . . . What this book finally does—this is me, not Wilentz—is establish Dylan as the 20th century’s Walt Whitman.”—Bryan Appleyard, The Times (London)
“Sean Wilentz is one of the few great American historians. His political and social histories of American Democracy are masterful and magisterial…. 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
“Interesting and intelligent.” —The Guardian (London) 

 “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

“Wilentz combines his deep musical knowledge with the skills of the fine historian to write one of the most important, insightful and revelatory books about America, its culture and its people, as interpreted through the works of one of its greatest artists. His book is a work both of deep scholarship and profound cultural engagement: a rare and marvelous achievement.” –Philip King, The Irish Times

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767931793
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767931793
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #397,783 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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 recording...to 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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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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