Monday, September 27, 2010
Robert Zimmerman, American
Does it seem at all odd that one of the premier Bob Dylan experts in this country is a Princeton professor (and Pulitzer nominee) specializing in the American Revolution and the first half of the Nineteenth Century? Actually, no. Sean Wilentz proves that one can wear two fanciful hats at once in this Post-Modernist, rock-riven era--can teach history while serving as "historian" of record (so to speak) at www.bobdylan.com, can write academic texts and Grammy-nominated liner notes and a sterling new study, Bob Dylan in America, too, without breaking a sweat.
His background helps to explain some things. A native New Yorker, Wilentz watched his father and uncle welcome Beats, folkies, and political rebels to their famous 8th Avenue Bookshop in Greenwich Village, and began his pre-teen years just as Dylan--who was an amalgamation of all those characters and then some (Charlie Chaplin, Little Richard, and maybe Dylan Thomas joining Bob's ready-mix of Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg)--was breaking into the Village club scene. He attended Dylan's historically important Concert at Philharmonic Hall on Halloween Night, 1964, and might well have chosen "Don't Look Back" as a wise (guy) philosophy, but actually came to study U.S. history instead. Then some years ago, Sean came back to Bob-ola too. Like his friend, critic and occasional prof Greil Marcus, these days Wilentz would merit the title "Dylan-ologist" if infamous garbage-sifter A.J. Weberman hadn't given such endeavors a bad name.
A few years ago Wilentz and Marcus together edited a collection of essays devoted to American folk ballads and related topics, stylishly named The Rose & the Briar. That book tried to blend academics, pop culturalists, and rock critics--which produced a scentless hybrid rife with thorns--but Wilentz's latest, just published, has the right stuff and more. Bob Dylan in America digs deep and soars high, trips back and forward in time, moves cleverly and inexorably through Bob's long and convoluted career, and finally demonstrates convincingly Wilentz's conviction that Dylan is both iconoclast and icon, as American as hoedowns, cherry pie, and ragged individualism (or polkas, burritos, and the borscht belt).
In fact, as I have just now read on p. 266--in a chapter analyzing Bob's 2001 album "Love and Theft" (quotation marks added by Dylan, acknowledging a borrowed phrase), titled "The Modern Minstrel Returns," with that term signifying minstrel show as well as troubadour--Wilentz offers his definition of Dylan the madcap magpie artist in some of the same terms I used in the paragraph above:
"Dylan has been committing this common kind of theft all of his working life, right down to swiping his own surname. The tune of his tribute to Woody Guthrie, 'Song to Woody,' on his very first album, comes directly from Guthrie's own '1913 Massacre,' which Guthrie appropriated from a traditional song." But neither simply an opportunist nor a careless plagiarist, Dylan instead, says Wilentz, "has been a minstrel, or has worked in the same tradition as the minstrels (a tradition that includes vaudeville as well as the southern songster performers, among them Blind Willie McTell)--copying other people's mannerisms and melodies and lyrics and utterly transforming them and making them his own, a form of larceny that is as American as apple pie, and cherry, pumpkin, and plum pie, too. As American as the hybrid music of Aaron Copland or 'The Lone Pilgrim'..." (I'll have more to say about both Copland and the hymn in a moment. But first I want to reference past blog pieces I wrote on artistic "borrowing"--go here--and Dylan's tribute to songster-bluesman McTell, here.)
For some reason, Wilentz has the academic's curse of needing to document every jot and tittle, and follow every path no matter how far afield it takes him. So rather than simply state that early bluesmen borrowed shamelessly from one another, and from the common pool of blues lyrics and images, he trails tunes like "Delia" (aka "Delia's Gone") all across the South and out into the Caribbean, tracing connections that lead, really, nowhere, proving not ultimate sources but only common links. Who was the first to sing it? As Dylan might say, "Originality... who really cares?"
Similarly the chapter on the sacred harp hymn "The Lone Pilgrim" gets lost for pages on end pondering which author of which shape-note hymnal has the clues to Bob singing that special number, and then Sean drolly drops the bombshell that Dylan learned it from an early Doc Watson album, and probably would have ignored those confusing sources anyway. And in the same chapter, now regarding host album Time Out of Mind, Wilentz traces the title's four words back to Shakespeare, Whitman, and Yeats, as though the three great poets held sway over Bob's mind--but then says he may actually have taken the words from a Warren Zevon song. Really? Couldn't he just have heard it in conversation up there in the Iron Range region of Minnesota (where he grew up), or read it in a cheap mystery novel, or found it when checking out some classier period writer like Sir Walter Scott or Mark Twain? (Or anyone anywhere else, for that matter?)
I say frugality is to blame. Wilentz wrote about "Delia" in The Rose & the Briar, then recycled and expanded on it in this book. And when his own father died in 1994, Dylan's version of "The Lone Pilgrim" gave Sean great comfort during his grieving, so he then evidently chose to focus on that hymn as indicative of Bob's links to the ragged, splinter-Christian strain in America. The two chapters occupy a section called "Interlude" and they function as a rest stop of sorts, exhaustive research exhausting the reader and not adding much to the general argument. Wilentz hits the mark instead when he discusses whole albums (Blonde on Blonde, or Modern Times) or bigger stretches of time in Dylan's career (the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, or his Saved/Gotta Serve gospel-influenced period), and finds the Americana connections that define other facets of Diamond Bob.
Drawing on his own Greenwich Village upbringing and (one assumes) his family's liberal/left leanings, Wilentz is spot-on-target with his personal Introduction and the two chapters of the "Before" segment. We learn how young Sean first discovered Bob and saw him in concert early on, then slowly drifted away, but came back to Dylan's music a couple of decades later, wanting to understand the methodology in his mad genius and long career. Digging into the works convinced him that Dylan was excavating writers and recordings stretching from Ovid and Shakespeare, to Whitman and a certain Henry Timrod, to Bing Crosby and Muddy Waters, drawing whatever he found of interest from any era and person, then scrambling the bits... that musically he was heavily influenced by the Populist era and the Depression, pulled like Aaron Copland in the Thirties into a Popular Front leftism (Bob's connection coming via Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar, whose father was a Copland cohort), adapting familiar folk tunes into easily grasped, for-the-people Classical music.
And in the second chapter Wilentz demonstrates the links between young ramblin'-rounder Bob and the Road-fueled Beats, the singer gradually trading his Chaplinesque clowning for Village hipster cool. And that Bob first met Allen Ginsberg at a party in Sean's uncle Ted's apartment right up above the bookshop... well, serendipity happens, ya dig? Allen and Dylan became partners--in poetry, that is--for decades thereafter.
Obviously, I am skimming the cream of Wilentz's chapters, but I promise they all are worthy of repeat readings; I commend them to you even as I skip over those devoted to Dylan's social-conscious song-writing, and his druggy, chip-on-his-shoulder Blonde on Blonde double album, and his traveling-circus Rolling Thunder tour... and on to two highpoints that must be mentioned: Sean's lovely combination of history and music appreciation, slavery days and blues scholarship, in the chapter titled "Many Martyrs Fell," regarding Dylan's buried-for-years masterpiece celebrating (sort-of; the song is gorgeous but gut-wrenching) "Blind Willie McTell."
Then over the course of three or four chapters Sean traces Dylan's period of wandering in the wilderness (circa 1979 to 1989), searching for answers, his muse gone AWOL--and the slow resurrection as he came to immerse himself in other eras and other minds, rediscovering old folk songs, some world music, and a century of quality pop stuff too (Stephen Foster to Stevie Wonder), borrowing/requisitioning/acquiring/quoting/stealing outright the threads of others to stitch together his own new patchwork pieces of Americana Redux; and rising through several albums again to enjoy a second becoming in this first decade of the 21st--Bob's deadpan cheery spirit and newfound grace well-documented in myriad merry performances and in his quasi-autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One.
Wilentz quotes Dylan on his immersion: "After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course... where actions and virtues were old style and judgmental things came falling out on their heads. A culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths... streets and valleys, rich peaty swamps, with landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys--an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors."
Whatever the odd sources for Dylan's revived and piecemeal muse, he is still indifferent at best to the sorts of verbal exegesis his fans--and Wilentz's most excellent book--indulge in: "I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else... I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists... I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."
From Northern Yankee hymns to Southern rhythm 'n' blues, from raucous Western Swing to East Coast rock 'n' roll, from Tex-Mex conjunto accordion to gypsy klezmer violin, from the Carter Family on XERA to Wolfman Jack howling across the airwaves, Bobby listened... If he couldn't be Elvis or Buddy Holly, or Woody for very long, maybe he could be some other character, many characters, not Robert Zimmerman but "Bob Dylan," as all-American as Jack Armstrong or Jackie Robinson.
I believe that "defining" Dylan finally means taking him at his word and his words and accrediting his actions. Among all the other improbable Bob's, count on him to offer: Jack Frost jokes with chameleon gestures, a jester's japes and some Trickster's genial gibes, his protean joie de vivre within a jongleur's jeremiad--and to be: both minstrel and minstrel show, disc jockey on the radio, Go Jim Dandy and Jump Jim Crow, Jimmy-Crack-Corn and Huck Finn's Jim, a Camptown cowpoke in whiteface trim.
He remains as illusive, allusive, and elusive as ever, a pilgrim progressing and regressing and progressing again, looking back in order to move forward--in space and running out of time, buck-and-winging it through recording studios and concert stages and the scribbled-over back pages of his own encrypted cuneiform mind; through canticles and chronicles, ellipticals and sabbaticals, love and death, theft and taxes, good times and modern times and times out of his mind, forever in never, a man.