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Bob Dylan in America

Cover of Bob Dylan in America

Bob Dylan in America

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One of America’s finest historians shows us how Bob Dylan, one of the country’s greatest and most enduring artists, still surprises and moves us after all these years.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sean Wilentz discov­ered the music of Bob Dylan as a young teenager; almost half a century later, he revisits Dylan’s work with the skills of an eminent American historian as well as the passion of a fan. Drawn in part from Wilentz’s essays as “historian in residence” of Dylan’s official website, Bob Dylan in America is a unique blend of fact, interpretation, and affinity—a book that, much like its subject, shifts gears and changes shape as the occasion warrants.
Beginning with his explosion onto the scene in 1961, this book follows Dylan as he continues to develop a body of musical and literary work unique in our cultural history. Wilentz’s approach places Dylan’s music in the context of its time, including the early influences of Popular Front ideology and Beat aesthetics, and offers a larger critical appreciation of Dylan as both a song­writer and performer down to the present. Wilentz has had unprecedented access to studio tapes, recording notes, rare photographs, and other materials, all of which allow him to tell Dylan’s story and that of such masterpieces as Blonde on Blonde with an unprecedented authenticity and richness.
Bob Dylan in America—groundbreaking, comprehensive, totally absorbing—is the result of an author and a subject brilliantly met.
From the Hardcover edition.
One of America’s finest historians shows us how Bob Dylan, one of the country’s greatest and most enduring artists, still surprises and moves us after all these years.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sean Wilentz discov­ered the music of Bob Dylan as a young teenager; almost half a century later, he revisits Dylan’s work with the skills of an eminent American historian as well as the passion of a fan. Drawn in part from Wilentz’s essays as “historian in residence” of Dylan’s official website, Bob Dylan in America is a unique blend of fact, interpretation, and affinity—a book that, much like its subject, shifts gears and changes shape as the occasion warrants.
Beginning with his explosion onto the scene in 1961, this book follows Dylan as he continues to develop a body of musical and literary work unique in our cultural history. Wilentz’s approach places Dylan’s music in the context of its time, including the early influences of Popular Front ideology and Beat aesthetics, and offers a larger critical appreciation of Dylan as both a song­writer and performer down to the present. Wilentz has had unprecedented access to studio tapes, recording notes, rare photographs, and other materials, all of which allow him to tell Dylan’s story and that of such masterpieces as Blonde on Blonde with an unprecedented authenticity and richness.
Bob Dylan in America—groundbreaking, comprehensive, totally absorbing—is the result of an author and a subject brilliantly met.
From the Hardcover edition.
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  • From the book

    1 MUSIC FOR THE COMMON MAN:The Popular Front and Aaron Copland's America

    Early in October 2001, Bob Dylan began a two-monthconcert tour of the northern United States. In his first performances since theterrorist attacks of September 11, Dylan debuted many of the songs on his newalbum, "Love and Theft," including the prescient song of disaster,"High Water (for Charley Patton)." Columbia Records, eerily, hadreleased "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, foronce, speak to the audience? What would he play

    The new tour had no opening act, but as a concert preludethe audience heard (as had become commonplace at Dylan's shows) a prerecordedselection of orchestral music. And on this tour, Dylan began playing what mayhave seemed a curious choice: a recording of the "Hoe-Down" sectionof Aaron Copland's Rodeo. Then Dylan and his band took the stage and, withacoustic instruments, further acknowledged the awfulness of the moment, while also marking Dylan's changes and continuities over the years, by playing thecountry songwriter Fred Rose's "Wait for the Light to Shine. For the rest of the month, through fifteen shows, Dylanopened with "Wait for the Light to Shine," often after hitting the stage to "Hoe-Down." He would continue to play snatches of Rodeo athis concerts for several tours to come, and now and then he would throw in theopening blasts of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or bits of AppalachianSpring. Copland's music from the 1940s served as Dylan's call to order, hisAmerican invocation. Sixty years on, whether he knew it or not, Dylan had closeda mysterious circle, one that arced back through the folk-music revival wherehe got his start to the left-wing New York musical milieu of the GreatDepression and World War

    II. Anyone familiar with Dylan's music knows about itsconnections 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 abroader world of experimentation with American music and radical politicsduring the Depression years and after. These larger connections are at timesquite startling, especially during the mid-1930s, when shared leftist politicsbrought together in New York a wide range of composers and musicians notusually associated with one another. Thereafter, many of the connections areelliptical and very difficult to pin down. They sometimes involve not directinfluence but shared affinities and artistic similarities recognized only inretrospect. Yet they all speak to Dylan's career, and illuminate his artisticachievement, in ways that Guthrie's and Seeger's work alone do not. The mostimportant of these connections leads back to Aaron Copland and his circle ofpolitically radical composers in the mid-1930s

    On March 16, 1934, Copland participated in a concert ofhis own compositions, sponsored by the Composers' Collective of the CommunistParty-affiliated Workers Music League and held at the party's Pierre DegeyterClub 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, modernistcomposer. The collective, with which Copland was closely associated, had beenfounded in 1932 to nurture the development of proletarian music, and itconsisted of about thirty members. The Degeyter Club took its name from thecomposer of the melody of "The Internationale."

    The review of the concert in the Communist newspaperDaily Worker praised Copland for his "progress from [the] ivorytower" and hailed his difficult Piano Variations, written in 1930, as amajor, "undeniably...

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.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine 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. (c) AudioFile 2010, Portland, Maine
  • Bruce Handy in The New York Times Book Review

    "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."

  • Andy Green in Rolling Stone "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."
  • Tim Rutten in The Los Angeles Times "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."
  • Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times (UK) "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."
  • Janet Maslin in The New York Times "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."
  • Martin Scorsese "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."
  • Philip Roth "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."
  • Al Kooper
    "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."
  • Jay Cocks, screenwriter for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE GANGS OF NEW YORK "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."
  • Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University "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
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