Gotta give Sean Wilentz credit – Bob Dylan In America avoids the black hole of Dylanologists, namely, straightforward biography. This is a guy who said he was raised in Gallup, New Mexico (people hung up on “facts” will say it was Hibbing, Minnesota) and learned songs by playing carnivals in the southwest - not by playing in bands in his high school, as the people who were there have repeatedly claimed.
Needless to say, Bob Dylan’s official website has no “Bio” link to click on.
I get the sense that whenever Dylan has talked, or written, about himself, he has treated his life as an old folk ballad – twisting the narrative to suit his needs, adding new verses and deleting some others, with no two tellings of the tale ever exactly the same. (That, after all, isn’t how folk music works.) But Wilentz’s book takes an interesting tack: approach the guy in the wider context of American popular music – that, after all, is where Dylan has always lived. And when he talks or writes about music, he means exactly what he says.
So by situating Dylan not in a series of clearly defined places and times (though some of them are clearly defined), but in the wider web of American musical culture, Wilentz comes close to giving us a glimpse at the “real Bob Dylan,” whatever that may be.
Is Bob Dylan a figure of musical history or musical legend? And does it matter? Leave a comment.