Yes, it’s true. Bob Dylan turns 70 today, which makes everyone who grew up listening to him feel old, too. But let’s take another perspective on this. Instead of feeling old, let’s celebrate the fact that we’ve had an opportunity to watch this rough-cut gem from Duluth, Minnesota grow up and become a legend in the music world.
I’ve had a few brushes of six degrees of separation with Dylan over the years. A few years back, the 1967 documentary ‘[amazon_link id=”B004FOPFFW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Don’t Look Back[/amazon_link],’ which chronicles Dylan’s 1965 tour through England, played at the Traverse City Film Festival, and we were fortunate to have the director, D.A. Pennebaker, in attendance and do a Q&A after the film. Sitting in the audience looking at the guy who had a back-stage pass to so much of the music world during that time was truly amazing.
Last year, I interviewed Steve Grossman, who runs Grossman Design Associates in Minneapolis. He’s a former rock ‘n roller who helped establish the city’s legendary 7th Street Entry back in the day, and whose family tree includes Bob Dylan, a distant cousin. In fact, Grossman still teaches guitar, plays in a blues band, and recently played with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks band members. “They do an annual concert every summer,” he told me. “All the musicians who were on that record pay tribute to him, and I played with them.”
Yesterday, the kind folks at Encyclopaedia Britannica sent me an interview with Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz, who served as the “historian in residence” of Bob Dylan’s official website and also wrote the book ‘[amazon_link id=”0385529880″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bob Dylan in America[/amazon_link].’ Wilentz grew up with his father running the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, a magnet for Beat poets and New York literati, above which, in the apartment of Wilentz’s uncle, Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg. Talk about connections!
Wilentz tagged along with his father on visits to the Folklore Center, a mecca for the musicians of the Folk Revival in the 1960s, attended Dylan’s legendary performance at Philharmonic Hall in 1964, and wrote the Grammy-nominated liner notes for the recording of that concert released in 2004.
Read on for Wilentz’ interview with Jeff Wallenfeldt, Britannica’s manager of geography and history.
Britannica: You wrote that what prompted you to undertake ‘Bob Dylan in America’ was your curiosity about how and why Dylan picked up on certain forerunners and contemporaries and combined and transformed their work, including the mutual influence of Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, whom Dylan seems to have considered a kindred soul. What were their greatest impacts on each other?
Wilentz: Ginsberg helped Dylan loosen his poetic breath and his imagery; Dylan helped bring Ginsberg into the 1960s and alert him anew to the possibility of tighter, lyrical poetic modes. They met at an important moment for both men, December 1963, in the traumatic aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. Dylan, who had read Beat writing before he left Minnesota, was moving on from the limits of the folk revival (which he’s already expanded); Ginsberg, with much of the Beat Generation dispersed, had just returned from India, where his Buddhism truly took hold, and was looking for new poetic directions. It was a fortuitous encounter that couldn’t have occurred under more creative circumstances, with both artists in flux.
Britannica: Addressing some of the accusations of plagiarism directed at Dylan since his album ‘Love and Theft,’ you write that he is not legally or spiritually a plagiarist and that “copying other people’s mannerisms and melodies and lyrics and utterly transforming them and making them his [is] a form of larceny that is as American as apple pie.” Is the way Dylan has engaged in this tradition of borrowing in recent years different from his approach as a younger artist or in any way more post-modern?
Wilentz: I’m never quite sure what people mean by “post-modern.” But I would say that Dylan’s appropriations have been more ambitious, wide-ranging, and comprehensive over the past 15 years or so. Even more alert to language and to subtle shifts in language than before, Dylan can take a phrase from a Japanese writer about a feudal lord and render it utterly new in the context of his lyrics. I’ve called the style Dylan’s “modern minstrelsy,” a kind of concentrated variation of appropriation and reinvention that has its roots in blackface minstrelsy, as well as T.S. Eliot.
Britannica: You’ve noted that ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ has outlived most of the other “finger-pointing” songs of the 1960s, and you’ve called it a surpassing work of art. What makes it such a great song, and what does it tell us about Dylan?
Wilentz: Its hushed poetry and inner rhymes, for one thing. Dylan took liberties with the facts surrounding actual killing, which has upset some listeners and critics. But he was writing a song, not a news story or a historical account, let alone supplying an affidavit. Some of the images — the killing cane twirled around a diamond-ringed finger — are stark and effective. But others are more restrained and all the more powerful for that … And there’s the melody itself. One writer has compared the tune to a dirge that could have been sung by the procession to Hattie Carroll’s grave. Compared to other topical songs of the day, including others that Dylan wrote, ‘Hattie Carroll’ surmounts its circumstance and, as far as possible, redeems the tragedy. It takes the folksong traditions that Dylan was working with about as far as they could go, as did a few of his other songs from late 1962 through late 1963 — notably, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’
Britannica: Both your book and Dylan’s ‘[amazon_link id=”B002E9TNYO” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Chronicles[/amazon_link]’ paint a portrait of Dylan as a voracious reader. Which of Dylan’s literary influences do you find most surprising?
Wilentz: None of them, really. But I take special interest in his obvious deep interest in American history and the Civil War, not just because I’m an American historian, but because of his uncanny ability to make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past.
Britannica: Was Dylan the most influential American artist of the second half of the 20th century?
Wilentz: He’s certainly the most important and influential songwriter. Insofar as song, sacred and secular, has always been the most popular of arts in America, I suppose a case could be made that he’s been the most influential artist, as well. But a few gripers have accused me of attaching too many superlatives to Dylan’s work, and I wouldn’t want to be hard and fast here. I mean, there’s Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, just to take two out of many novelists … I’m not going to open myself up to being understood as saying Dylan’s work has been better or more important than theirs, let alone the work of other novelists, poets, painters, etc.
Still, Dylan has probably had the most influence of anybody, not just on his fellow songwriters and performers, but on the culture at large. Just last week, I read of how lawyers and judges cite Dylan lyrics more than any other non-judicial source. I suppose that’s telling, no?