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by Sean Wilentz

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-52988-4
Publisher: Doubleday

A noted historian tries to shed light on the less-traveled byways in Bob Dylan’s epic journey.

As he explains in his introduction, Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.; The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008, 2008, etc.) is “historian-in-residence” for Dylan’s website. Here he attempts to situate the musician in a multitude of American musical, cultural and literary contexts. The author begins with a strained and unconvincing stab at tying Dylan to composer Aaron Copland—a better case might have been made for Marc Blitzstein, who is mentioned cursorily—but the second chapter, about the impact of the Beats (specifically, Allen Ginsberg), is more successful. Wilentz then plots a chronological course through several highlights and lowlights of his subject’s career; several chapters expand on previously published essays. The author is at his best when examining such unquestioned diadems as Blonde On Blonde (1966) and the tardily released 1983 song “Blind Willie McTell,” both of which benefit from Wilentz’s access to original session tapes. He is less successful when addressing live performances, including a 1964 solo show at Philharmonic Hall in New York and a 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour stop in New Haven, both of which were attended by the author. Sometimes Wilentz’s arguments become attenuated to near-pointlessness. His numbing readings of the misbegotten films Renaldo and Clara (1978) and Masked and Anonymous (2003) and his labored explication of the roots of Dylan’s recording of “Lone Pilgrim” are especially taxing. The book gains heat with a rousing defense of Dylan’s multitudinous borrowings in his latter-day work, called outright plagiarism by some (including, most recently, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell). Wilentz ends with an apology for the wacky 2009 seasonal album, Christmas in the Heart, though it makes the record no less mystifying. The author is capable of sometimes striking and unexpected insights linking Dylan to American precursors ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Bing Crosby, but his frequently misguided ideas and oft-leaden style weigh down the proceedings.

One for the practicing Dylanologist—general readers should approach with caution.