Bob Dylan is a plagiarist. Did you know that? Just ask Mokoto Rich, who pointed out that the lyrics from Dylan’s 2006 album, Modern Times, strongly resembled the poetry of Confederate poet laureate Henry Timrod.
Bob Dylan is a fake. Did you know that? Just ask Joni Mitchell, who recently told the Los Angeles Times that, “Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Bob Dylan is a poet, a genius, and one of the greatest artists in American history. Did you know that? Just ask Sean Wilentz, whose recent book, Bob Dylan in America, attempts to properly place Dylan in the lineage of American artists, from Allen Ginsberg to Walt Whitman, from Aaron Copland to Blind Willie McTell.
Wilentz is, by his own admission, a fan, so there is an unmistakable affection for Dylan throughout the book. When Wilentz discusses the accusations of plagiarism, for example, there’s no hint of condemnation. Similarly, Wilentz writes first-person accounts of concerts with the admiration and awe of a member of the “spellbound” audience.
But Wilentz is also a historian (and a rather renowned one at that), so Bob Dylan in America is not the gushing ode to Robert Zimmerman that so many Dylan books quickly become. Instead, Wilentz uses Dylan as a springboard to investigate the annals of American artistic history, tracing Dylan’s influences and inspiration back to their roots. As a result, Bob Dylan in America is about America as much as it is about Bob Dylan.
The first two chapters of the book (constituting the book’s Part I, aptly titled “Before”) cover Copland and Ginsberg respectively. In these two figures Wilentz traces the thread of left-leaning political protest art in the twentieth century. In the case of Ginsberg, whose friendship and connection with Dylan is extensively well-documented, this may seem like a simple task. The book, however, provides a glimpse into the nuance of their kid brother/big brother dynamic. It contains humorous anecdotes about Dylan and Ginsberg’s first meeting, at which Ginsberg tried to hit on Dylan (“Allen was really a flaming queer,” says rock journalist Al Aronowitz), as well as touching details like Ginsberg’s reaction to the song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” at which he “wept with illuminated joy at what he sensed was a passing of the bohemian tradition to a younger generation.”
Dylan’s connection to Copland is less obvious, but in some respects more telling. The story of an innovative young musician who becomes strongly affiliated with the leftist movements of his era only to later find those affiliations burdensome for him as an artist is, essentially, the story of both Dylan and Copland. Unlike Ginsberg, who was more overtly political than Dylan or Copland ever were, Copland explicitly renounced his leftist sympathies, telling Joe McCarthy’s Subcommittee that he was an apolitical artist who had never sympathized with Communists or attended a Communist event—a claim Wilentz finds completely false. Yet Copland’s motivations—as well as the harsh reaction from the Left—shed light on Dylan’s own decisions to reject the leftist movements that would claim him as a leader in the 1960s, and the backlash that ensued from that decision.
Stories like those of Copland and Ginsberg make Dylan seem like less of a singularity in the history of American art and music, and more like the most successful in a long tradition. Wilentz also illustrates how aware of this tradition and consciously indebted to it Dylan was. In addition to his fondness for Ginsberg’s poetry, Dylan had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of American art from Walt Whitman to folk music and the blues. A chapter devoted to Blind Willie McTell and Dylan’s ode to him offers the best portrait of these intricate relationships and influences.
While Wilentz’s obvious love of history and breadth of knowledge can sometimes give a complete portrait (down to the names of stores that McTell frequently played at) it can also lead him off his track. Wilentz spends a whole chapter, for example, diving into the history behind “Delia,” one of the folk songs Dylan covered on 1993’s World Gone Wrong, and gets so enmeshed in its background and context that he somehow ends up discussing Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of William McKinley. And while such detail is generally appreciated, it becomes harder and harder to connect these things to Dylan.
And the book is really at its best when it deals with Dylan directly. It’s true that things like Blonde on Blonde and the Rolling Thunder Revue have been covered far more than people like Willie McTell and Joseph Thomas (aka “The White Pilgrim” and inspiration for the song “The Lone Pilgrim”) have, but Wilenz covers them with such a refreshing clarity that they feel new again. The historian’s eye for details and specificity—as well as his first-hand experience with some of these events—makes for vivid depictions. Picturing, for example, Dylan coming up with the idea for the Rolling Thunder Revue while “tossing basketballs around” at Roger McGuinn’s house is both humanizing and impossible—it’s like trying to imagine Dostoevsky playing lacrosse.
Similarly, Wilentz’s analysis of the recording sessions for Blonde on Blonde make you feel as if you are in the room with the band. He recounts a session that took place just eight days after Dylan’s marriage, in which the band was trying to record a newly written song called “Freeze Out”:
“‘Freeze Out’ was ‘Visions of Johanna,’ virtually intact, but Dylan was even less certain about how he wanted it played than he was about the title. On the session tape, he and the Hawks change the key and slow the tempo at the start of the second take, if only to hear more closely. ‘That not right,’ Dylan interrupts. He speeds things up again—’like that’—and bids [Bobby] Gregg to go to his cowbell, but some more scorching tests are no good either. ‘Stop…That’s not the sound, that’s not it,’ he breaks in early on. ‘I can’t…’at’s not…bauoom…it’s, it’s more of a bauoom, bauoom…It’snota, it’snota, it’s not hard rock. The only thing in it, man, that’s hard is Robbie.’ A broken attempt features a harpsichord, possibly played by Garth Hudson. ‘Nah,’ Dylan decides…. Dylan had written an extraordinary song…but had not rendered its sound.”
As Wilentz brings these moments to life, though, he is constantly situating them in the proper historical context. Hearing Dylan try and nail down his specific sound, we hear echoes of Copland not being content with his original style and risking criticisms of “selling out” with a newer sound. Watching Dylan travel the country with his caravan of musicians, writers, poets, and performers on the Rolling Thunder Revue we also get a look at the influence of American painter Norman Raeben, who supposedly taught Dylan “how to see” right before the tour began. And in more recent songs, like the tracks on Modern Times, we hear the words of Henry Timrod, the poet laureate of the Confederacy.
Dylan’s gift has always been his ability to synthesize seemingly disparate elements of American culture, to take the bohemianism of Allen Ginsberg and the soul of Willie McTell, along with the rhythm of Elvis Presley, and turn it into something unique and his own. Wilentz’s book is the story of where Dylan’s ingredients come from and what makes him such a special artist. Bob Dylan has always been particularly inscrutable, and as a result he’s been called a lot of names: plagiarist, fake, genius, poet. Wilentz’s book, though, refers to Dylan as something far more nuanced: an American.