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Conversation: Historian Sean Wilentz, Author of ‘Bob Dylan in America’

Sean Wilentz grew up in Greenwich Village at the height of its bohemian influence in the 1950s and 60s. At 13, he attended his first concert performed by a young Bob Dylan. Part of the generation first shaped by the influence of Dylan’s music, Wilentz went on became a Professor of History at Princeton, the official historian of Bob Dylan’s website, and now, the author of a new non-fiction book, “Bob Dylan in America,” which combines biography, social history and cultural commentary about the musician.

I recently spoke with Wilentz by phone in Princeton, NJ:

Hear an excerpt from the audio book version of ‘Bob Dylan in America’:

A full transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hello, I’m Jeffrey Brown and welcome to Art Beat on the PBS Newshour. Today I’m joined by Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton and author of the new book, “Bob Dylan in America.” Welcome to you.

SEAN WILENTZ: Jeffrey, it’s great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first thing that strikes me is that this isn’t a classic biography in the normal sense. What is it? What do you think it is?

SEAN WILENTZ: It’s my effort to take the work of someone I’ve admired and learned from for very many years and to think about it in a way that brings to bear my own skills as a historian. And as you say it is not a standard biography. It’s not really any biography of any kind of, although there is biographical material. Rather, it’s an attempt to try to understand something. And the question that I raised was, What does Bob Dylan have to tell us about America, about the time that I grew up, the culture that formed me, in effect? And then, What does America, the wider context, have to tell us about Bob Dylan?

JEFFREY BROWN: There are also elements of autobiography, of yourself as part of this. You bring in your skills as a historian, but you’re also bringing in some of your own experience.

SEAN WILENTZ: That’s right. I had a very lucky childhood, a very strange childhood in many ways, because my dad ran a bookshop right in the heart of Greenwich Village, which was a kind of literary crossroads, and some of the musicians stopped by, as well. But my youth in the late ’50s, early ’60s was very much in the world that Bob Dylan first emerged out of. I’ve had connections with him and his work going back to when I was, well, I went to my first Bob Dylan concert when I was 13 years old. So I put that in the book because I couldn’t keep it out, but I wanted to so do in a way that was — I didn’t want to make it a memoir by any means. I don’t know the man, so why would I want to write a memoir?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the historian in you is making these connections to particular moments in music and social history; early chapters, Aaron Copland and music of the ’40s, especially the leftist political music and ethos, and then of course the Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. Later you make clear, though, that these aren’t always direct influences. That’s kind of an interesting thing you’re trying to do here. So what is that you were looking for in looking to these connections?

SEAN WILENTZ: Some of them are direct. In the case of Aaron Copland, as far as I know, the two men never met, although Dylan has used some of Copland’s music as a kind of musical overture to his own concerts from time to time going back to the early part of the 2000s. But there I wanted to see if I could connect Dylan not to an individual or even several individuals but to a whole world that came out of the ’30s and ’40s that very much shaped people who directly influenced him. But by simply looking at the same characters again — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, those people — that story has been told and been told in way that didn’t emphasize this broader world of the popular front — you know, left composers in the 1930s and ’40s, which Copland and Pete Seeger’s father, for example, were very much a part of the downtown New York left wing musical world. In fact Seeger’s father wrote a review of a Copland concert for the Daily Worker of all things and it was a rave review. Now that was a point of contact between the two worlds, which got my mind going, so it wasn’t just happenstance, there were connections. They weren’t directly influential on Dylan, although who knows when Dylan first heard Copland, but the idea of using folk music and American folk music and raising it to a higher level of art, now he didn’t think of that because of Aaron Copland, but both of them did it and they did have contacts with specific individuals, so it’s kind of an experiment, Jeffrey, to try and see if a writer can do that, so that it’s not just a straight, you know, Woody Guthrie begat Bob Dylan begat Bruce Springsteen. It’s not that kind of genealogy. It’s rather a cultural genealogy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a Dylan that emerges that perhaps surprised when you tried to make these various connections direct and otherwise?

SEAN WILENTZ: I don’t know that I was surprised by it as much as I found it more, it was richer. I understood what I thought I’d understood before, but in deeper ways, so that in the Copland case, for example, here are a couple of Lithuanian decedent Jews, one from Brooklyn and the other from Minnesota, but they come through an American experience, and when you look at them full of their differences, certain things come out, which are clearer, and that’s helped me understand a little bit more about how Dylan not only got his start, how powerful that popular front current was in American cultural when he was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, but also how it’s another example of what Dylan actually did, which was to come into American culture, see parts of it that were thought of as common or popular and raise it to another level. Coeland did that in a very different way, but seeing that Copland did it helped me understand how Dylan did it on his own in a much richer way.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are a lot of interesting, great set pieces that you have in the book. I’m thinking particularly of the “Blonde on Blonde” recording in Nashville and in New York, but I want to pick out later, the more recent Dylan, because it’s something I tried to understand myself, I guess, because it’s harder to grasp in a way. You pick up on “Love and Theft” and that’s when I just went back, I was listening to it again this morning — extremely varied styles. You refer to the modern minstrel, I think is the term you used. What does that mean? What do you see in this Dylan that emerged even in the last 10 years with a kind of rejuvenation?

SEAN WILENTZ: Yeah, Dylan had kind of come to, he had said himself the end of his rope at the end of the ’80s, and then began a period of recalibration or resurgence or renewal beginning in the early ’90s and has produced a body of work, which is a departure, but also has continuities, and that’s been really since his album that came out 1997 called “Time Out of Mind,” and then I think really got going with “Love and Theft,” and that style, that modern minstrel style, it’s a permutation, it’s a change in what he’s really always been doing which is to take an American song, an American folk music, and not just American folk music, and to inhabit it and to turn it into something that is his own. What I think we are seeing now is a much more self-conscious, much denser appropriation and rearrangement of shards of American poetry, not just American poetry, ancient classical Roman poetry, and American music as wide and as broad as songs like the famous old folk song called “Rosie,” which shows up in the song “Mississippi,” to Bing Crosby, things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Bob Dylan. So this modern minstrel, that is to say, it’s a matter of imitation but also reinvention of those things and to turn it into something else, into something new that’s been the hallmark of Dylan’s work, in particular over the last 10, 15 years or so. By the time Dylan hit the mid ’80s I think that his career and his music was kind of spinning out of control. And I think he reconnected with his own roots, his own soul, his musical soul, when he released a couple of acoustical albums at the beginning of the ’90s and then he was off and running having found something new again, and that’s what we’re hearing now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me ask you one last thing, and this may be a kind of — it’s the historian question, I supposed. You make all the connections, when you pile up the facts of a particular person, and yet does that really explain the person that emerges as you know the kind of generous Bob Dylan. A lot of people at that time had the similar influences and experience and yet there is one guy who emerges.

SEAN WILENTZ: Oh, well, that’s two questions, I think, Jeffrey, actually. One is, Do you ever get the Bob Dylan or did you get his essence? No, of course not. I wouldn’t have that arrogance to try and do so. You are talking about a great artist and, you know, no one has ever pinned down the full Yeats or the real Joyce or the real anything. All you can do is show certain clues and directions, illusions. You hope to broaden your understanding, and then readers’ understanding. So there is never going to be a definitive one, but, you know, I saw something new. And as you say, other people have had these connections, so what’s so special about Bob Dylan? Well what’s so special about Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. I That’s what makes true artistic genius, and there is such a thing as someone who can hear what everybody else has heard and make of it something that is startling, something that is extraordinary. And I have no explanation for what makes an artistic genius. I’m just happy to be around it and I’m happy to be living in the same world at the same time as Bob Dylan.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new book is “Bob Dylan in America.” Sean Wilentz, thanks for talking to us.

SEAN WILENTZ: Great pleasure. See you later, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown and thanks to all for joining us on Art Beat.