In the past decade, Bob Dylan appears to have discovered Aaron Copland
, using pieces from his compositions to open his concert. Wilentz opens his book with an attempt to connect Dylan to Copland that isn't very convincing but does provide an interesting look into the Popular Front of the 1930s and later folk movement spearheaded by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Wilentz is on more solid ground when he explores Dylan's connection to the Beats in the succeeding chapter, in particular Allen Ginsburg, who I guess can be credited with opening up Bob to a broader plain of music, which eventually led Dylan away from the "folkies."
As Wilentz notes late in the book, many of these chapters are culled from previous essays and articles he has written. His chapter on the 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall is taken largely from the liner notes he wrote for Bootleg Series 6: Concert at Philharmonic Hall
. So, for Dylan aficionados you may have felt you have read much of this before. Not to worry though, there is fresh material, such as his wonderful explorations of many of Dylan's classic songs like Nettie Moore and Blind Willie McTell.
Wilentz jokes that he became the "Historian in Residence" for the official Bob Dylan website, and he also notes the many concerts he has been to over the years, including the 64 Concert and one of the 75 Rolling Thunder Revue stops in New Haven, Connecticut, giving him an inside view of Dylan and his musical process that few others have. He notes the extensive conversations he had with Al Kooper and other persons who played with Dylan over the years, and notes the collaborative work he did with Greil Marcus. Nevertheless, Wilentz is first and foremost a historian, not a musicologist, so his attempts to dissect Dylan's music sometimes fall flat.
One of his more interesting chapters is his review of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue
and the movie, Renaldo and Clara, a cinematic byproduct of that tour. At nearly 5 hours, Renaldo and Clara, is more a test of patience than an epic account of the concert. Dylan had long been an aspiring actor, and after getting a bit role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
and writing the soundtrack for the Sam Peckinpah movie, he enlisted Sam Shepard and Howard Alk to make something of the tour. In the end, Dylan took the credit for this sprawling film that mixes acted scenes with concert footage, echoing his passion for the French classic film, Children of Paradise
What makes this cultural biography stand out are the valuable insights into Dylan's unique compositional process that has befuddled critics over the years, even leading to calls of plagiarism. But, as Wilentz points out, Dylan has tapped into the heart of American music and added to it influences from far and wide that is fully in keeping with the folk tradition. Like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan is a "link in the chain," and a very important one.