Bob Dylan in America

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (The Bodley Head)

November 2010

On 24th May 1966, Bob Dylan appeared at the Paris Olympia, as part of his European tour. His progress had already been a difficult one, thanks to his decision to use loud, electric backing in the second half of each concert. A few days earlier, he had played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, and been taunted by the cry of ‘Judas’ from an audience member. Now, he knew he could expect the same sort of reaction from folk purists who objected to his  rock’n’roll antics. But he was actually taking a further risk. For as the curtain parted, the audience was greeted by the sight of a huge USA flag, there to serve as backdrop to the performance. This was not an ironic gesture: Dylan saw himself as a representative of North American culture – a culture which, musically, he regarded as of paramount importance. Needless to say, Dylan’s stance was not well received by Parisian youth, many of whom identified the USA with imperialism, racism and consumer culture. He had to perform in the face of not only angry demands to turn down the amplifiers (which he was well-used to by now) but also cries of ‘U.S. go home!’

Sean Wilentz does not recount this story until about two-thirds of the way through this impressive tome of a book. It is typical of his technique: to hone in on specific moments in Dylan’s career, seeking to draw out their significance, before moving onto another, but not always in strict chronology.

If one is looking for a general thesis, it seems to be that Dylan, having made his name in the folk revival movement centred on New York in the early sixties, remained true to his roots even when he seemed to be abandoning them. What Bob Dylan in America demonstrates is that, in drawing on urban rhythm & blues, as well as the rock’n’roll which derived from it, the songwriter was legitimately exploring the possibilities of a distinctively American tradition – that tradition which includes not only the blues (rural and urban, acoustic and electric) but also the hymn, the parlour ballad, gospel music, ‘hillbilly’ music and the innumerable gems which arose from ‘Tin Pan Alley’.

Of course, it would be silly to suggest that Dylan’s career is one long, simple homage to the American past. Admirers of his who, like your humble reviewer, have reached a certain age will bear witness to the unprecedented impact of the songs of the mid-sixties especially. That was the period when he simultaneously transformed folk and rock by making the music serve as a vehicle for hallucinatory lyrics inspired by the likes of William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud. Dylan famously said in an interview in 1965, when asked whether the music he made should be called ‘folk-rock’, that he thought of it rather as ‘vision music’.

Mention of Blake may remind us that Dylan’s interest in ‘vision’ was partly inspired by his friend, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose own work had been hugely influenced by Blake’s. Wilentz devotes a long chapter to Dylan’s debt to Ginsberg and the Beat movement. I didn’t find much new in this part of the book, to be honest, but then I must come clean and declare an interest: I’ve explored this territory myself, at some length.* Still, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who realizes that Dylan transformed Beat poetry, by putting it to music and making it accessible to the world, as well as revitalising folk and rock.

I could go on explaining and exploring the key moments which Wilentz chooses to focus on. As space is short, perhaps I’d better demonstrate the advantages of his historical approach by focussing on just one performance from his later career.

Dylan surprised his fans in the nineties by releasing two albums of acoustic folk and blues, all either traditional or penned by musicians of the early twentieth century. It was as if he’d gone back to where he started, his first album having been the same sort of thing (except for two self-composed pieces). Wilentz provides every possible fact and theory about one particular song featured on the album World Gone Wrong: ‘Lone Pilgrim’. Tracing it back to a hymnal called The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, he identifies its subject as one Joseph Thomas, a young preacher who had himself published a volume called The Pilgrim’s Hymn Book in 1814. A fierce opponent of slavery, he preached a gospel of simplicity and equality, and had a large following. Dying prematurely of smallpox, he inspired another preacher, John Ellis, to write a song called ‘The White Pilgrim’, which was subsequently included in The Sacred Harp. Eventually it ended up in the repertoire of the renowned folk & country artist,  Doc Watson, which was how Dylan himself came across it.

When Dylan sings ‘Lone Pilgrim’, he is singing what we call ‘roots music’, or ‘Americana’; but we must not forget that it is essentially a hymn. No wonder that he has gone on record as saying that he gets his religion from music: ‘These old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book.’ Again: ‘I believe the songs.’ So those who objected to Dylan’s ‘born-again’ phase of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he wrote in the gospel music idiom, were missing the point. The American musical tradition is at root a religious tradition, and Dylan – with all his apparent inconsistency and his capacity for outrage – has always been true to it. Wilentz provides just enough history for us to understand and appreciate that. It is a typical insight from a fascinating book.

Laurence Coupe

*See my Beat Sound, Beat Vision (MUP, 2007): now out in paperback, at long last!