Sean Wilentz is a prominent Princeton University history professor, known for his recent weighty tome on the Reagan era and his essays in the New York Review of Books. Wilentz has now focused his incisive historian’s eye on the career of the nation’s most famous troubadour in “Bob Dylan in America” (Doubleday, 400 pp., $28.95).
Robert Zimmerman left his native Minnesota for New York in January 1961 and soon changed his name to Bob Dylan for the sound. In a thrilling book that is part biography and part social history with a deep musical analysis, Wilentz explores the influences of Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell and Pete Seeger on Dylan’s music and his spiritual bond with the Beat Generation. For Wilentz, it is also personal; his father ran an influential bookshop in Greenwich Village when Bob Dylan was a rising folk singer nearby. Wilentz pieces together the classic recording sessions of “Blonde on Blonde” in 1965-66, Dylan’s decline in the 1980s and his repeated comebacks. 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.
Wilentz, 59, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Princeton.
Q. What made you want to write a book on Bob Dylan?
A. The book goes back to the late 1990s. I had written an essay on Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” and started writing for his official website, taking the facetious title “historian in residence.” One writes books because you want to find things out. When I finished my book on the Reagan era, I figured that it was now or never to write something coherent about Bob Dylan. The book is not a conventional biography, but I realized that my essays would give me a way to both address his work and its context. There was an autobiographical element, but I didn’t want it to become a major theme in the book.
Q. Why do you think Dylan has always had a rocky relationship with the press?
A. I think he felt very badly burned by his early interviews. He saw how the media chewed up whatever was creative, new and interesting, and spit it out again, and he saw them trying to do it to him. Early on, there was the piece where some girl in New Jersey claimed she had written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and then there was the article that exposed his real name and the myth that he created about himself. He was angry that people were snooping on him. I don’t think Bob Dylan likes people defining him. I think he likes defining himself with his art.
Q. In your exquisite essay on the making of “Blonde on Blonde,” the reader almost feels as if he is in the studios in Nashville and New York. What kind of access did you get?
A. I was very fortunate to listen to tapes of the studio recordings of “Blonde on Blonde.” Along with other sources, I was able to piece together how the songs evolved. My proudest discovery was that Rick Danko played during the New York sessions. Only the Nashville musicians were listed on the album. I broke my own rules and did some interviewing for this essay. I am not a journalist and find interviewing too subjective. I’m a historian. I am much better at reading dead people’s letters.
Q. What effect has Bob Dylan’s 50-year career had on the American cultural scene?
A. I think he’s the greatest American songwriter of the last half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. That’s the most important thing. He brought together so many strains of American life and culture that was ahead of the rest of the country. Dylan was able to entertain and arouse people’s intelligence, as well as their understanding of music and culture.
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger on September 19, 2010)