A Review: Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz

September 17, 2010



A Review

Bob Dylan In America


Sean Wilentz


R.E. Prindle


Dylan Back Then

There was a lot of hoopla and drum rolling before this book was released. A full chapter was published in Atlantic Magazine in August, the excerpt here, the excerpt there, the full treatment. Wilentz opened a website with teasers added daily trying to draw you in. A lot of talk about Wilentz being the official historian with, one supposed, full access to Dylan himself so that one was being admitted to the inside. ’Oh,’ I said to myself, ’it looks like Dylan is breaking silence, emerging from his cherished privacy through a surrogate.’

Well, I was right. Wilentz has written a major kvetch and justification. Kvetch- Jewish for bitch.

Part of the problem is against ‘wannabe Dylan writers’ polluting the internet. Not wishing to voice complaints in his own voice Dylan has Al Kooper do it for him. Something like telling an intermediary to tell the guy next to him what you think of him. Right there on the front cover face level with Dylan’s picture. Big Al is quoted:


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 hard-core intelligent research.


We Dylan wannabe writers are duly chastened. I read your own book, Al, and certainly felt I was in the studio with you and Mike and Bob. When you snuck over to the organ, I tell ya, it took my breath away. Nice move. Grossman was there too, wasn’t he, or was he just listening to the replay? Well, I could do the same hard-core research and writing if I had access to the archives like Sean. But, I guess that’s out of the question.

Still, I couldn’t believe that we wannabes were the whole excuse for Dylan’s emergence from privacy and I was right there, too. I could feel the tension building as Sean went through his rather laughable exercise of connecting Dylan to the Popular Front and Aaron Copland. Sean kind of has us believing Dylan was aware of Copland from the cradle untill well past his arrival in NYC while apparently sitting through the Children Of Paradise as a toddler. He gives it away when he says that Norman Raeben introduced Bob to the movie in 1974 just in time for Bob to be influenced for the Rolling Thunder Review. I think Bob must have heard Copland about the same time too.

The tension was building, my breathing becoming more labored, when near the end of the book it burst. God, what suspense. The real reason for Dylan commissioning Wilentz to write the book was this famous outburst from another noted folkish singer:


Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and a fake. Bob is a deception.

Bob The Deception


Wow, that one really hurt. I don’t know whether Joni had bottled that up since her treatment in Rolling Thunder but I suspect so. Sam Shepard wasn’t over impressed with his treatment on the tour either. The reporter of the Joni Mitchell quote couldn’t reach Dylan for comment: According to his representative, Dylan was unavailable for comment.’ Hiding on his bus no doubt.

That was then, this is now. Dylan’s mouthpiece and official historian, Sean Wilentz, fires back. He devotes a couple dozen subsequent pages, maybe more, after referring to Mitchell by name and date. (Ooh, it’s like falling on your tailbone, you know how that smarts.)

Just to mend a few fences Bob through Sean apologizes to Geoff Muldaur for that Carolyn Hester remark during Bob’s amphetamine fueled days. Wise move.

Sean denies out of hand that Dylan is a fake; he just approaches authenticity from a different direction. He’s not plagiarizing he’s reconstructing the music that is danger of disappearing so that it will last. Apparently the folk thing that had a run from about 1910 to 1980 or so has lost its influence in the ongoing rush of the globe’s multitudes to America. The times they are, indeed, a changin’.  What did they expect, that a Korean peasant was going to embrace a song they couldn’t understand like ‘I wish I was a mole in the ground?’

As Wilentz explains: Borrowing three different lines from three different writers in succession for one verse isn’t plagiarism, it’s…well…something else. Preservation. Not that I care. I don’t listen anyway. I do expect some original lyrics though. If I want to listen to some old folk songs I’ll tune in toJohnny Cash’s Delia’s Gone or maybe even put an old Geoff Muldaur side on.

Bob’s not really interested in the whole folk genre anyway; he seems to be more interested in Darky murder songs. That’s part of folk, of course, but so is the saga of Mollie and Tenbrooks and the Tennessee Stud. There’s more to folk than depressing murder ballads. Who cares if Delia got shot. I don’t. Stagger Lee’s OK.

I think something’s being lost in the shuffle here. These are songs, only songs, there’s nothing monumentally important in them. Three Jolly Coachmen and There’s A Tavern In The Town are just as important. If Bob wants to be a musicologist he’ll suffer the fate of musicologists. What do I care about musicology when all I want to do is listen to a good unadulterated tune. And when I want to listen to a good tune there are a lot of better singers around than Dylan. Geoff Muldaur, for instance. Old Lonnie Donegan sides. The Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio. Peter, Paul And Mary for Chrissakes.

Let’s get real. Bob was 1964-66 when the amphetamines rushed through his bloodstream. Since then, well…he’s got a good following and should be thankful for that. Be a musicologist, rewrite Frankie And Johnny, see if I care. If I want to quote a song as a leader for one of my essays I rewrite them myself so they mean what I want . Most of those lines have lousy meter anyway. Still, I give the original writers credit.

Dylan could rewrite a song for Joni: You’ve gotten under my skin.

The book doesn’t call for much more of a review. Slight. Can I have my money back?

We did it!

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