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Bob Dylan in America

3.83  ·  Rating Details ·  1,407 Ratings  ·  148 Reviews
One of America’s finest historians shows us how Bob Dylan, one of the country’s greatest and most enduring artists, still surprises and moves us after all these years.

Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sean Wilentz discovered the music of Bob Dylan as a young teenager; almost half a century later, he revisits Dylan’s work with the skills of an eminent American historian as
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published September 7th 2010 by Doubleday (first published January 1st 2010)
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Mark Smith
Nov 06, 2010 Mark Smith rated it liked it
11 Oct 2010
The latest book on the legendary singer brings it all back home... literally.

A quick online search for books about Bob Dylan claims that an astonishing 1532 works are currently available, and that’s most likely the tip of the iceberg. So why this one? What does Sean Wilentz’s offering tell us – about anything? Is Dylan even still relevant?

A man in the carriage of the Glasgow-bound commuter train the other morning certainly thought so and was intrigued by the latest Dylan biography in
Sep 24, 2010 Richard rated it really liked it
Sean Wilentz's "Bob Dylan in America" follows Greil Marcus's "The Old, Weird America" as an attempt to place Dylan in the cultural history of the United States, and it's a much more coherent read.

What Wilentz does is compare Dylan's artistic development with the artistic and political milieu that he would have brushed against as a boy, how that milieu moved him in a particular direction as a young artist, and how those connections formed a web as he matured and moved through life. For instance,
Mar 14, 2011 Matt rated it liked it
I'm not the type of fan who needs to read about every teenage girlfriend, high school band, or father-son fight of the musicians I respect, and so I definitely appreciate Wilentz's approach to Dylan: a series of loosely-connected essays on different moments in his career thus far. For the same reason, I am grateful that the author writes in the voice of a historian and critic rather than that of a tabloid reporter or biographer.

That said, the essays aren't all of the same caliber. While the essa
Oct 28, 2010 Jamie rated it it was amazing
It's about time a professional historian addressed dylan's greatest talent...weaving and hurling vast gobs of americana into folk/pop/country/rock/blues music for the last 50 years.

wilentz expertly dissects greil marcus's 'weird old america' in a way that rock journalists cannot even approach. dylan fans will enjoy. music fans might cry uncle. the 'dylan is a great songwriter but can't sing' crowd should stay away.

homeschoolers in the 'self learn' movement will delight upon reading about dylan
Oct 04, 2010 Rick rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Wilentz, a prize-winning American historian and a Bob Dylan fan succeeds, after a skippable introduction, in producing an engaging and highly informative account of Dylan’s place in American music and how American cultural forces have influenced and continue to influence Dylan. He commences with Aaron Copland and the politics of the radical left in the 1930s: Steinbeck, Blitzstein, the WPA, Allan Lomax and proceeds to the more direct influences of Woody Guthrie and the Weavers and Allen Ginsberg ...more
Bill Keithler
This book is a little slow to start but gradually picks up steam. It is more accurately a collection of essays, which address with varying success, the theme of painting Bob Dylan as a master absorber and re-former of numerous pieces of artistic arcana ranging from Aaron Copland (this is not very convincing) through black blues roots of a hundred years ago. The more interesting essays are in the second half of the book, where the author analyzes Dylan's twin set of folk albums of the early 90's ...more
Dead John Williams
May 30, 2015 Dead John Williams rated it did not like it
Shelves: reviewed
I’ve always liked Bob Dylan’s work and so I looked forward to this.

I was horribly, horribly disappointed.

The shopping list in my pocket could have been read to more effect that this load of dry academic drivel.

Bob Dylan is one of the most influential musicians of our time and this guy just doesn’t get that in any way shape or form….but don’t just take my word for it, ask someone else who doesn’t like it.

On the one hand, Sean Wilentz has written a good book about Bob Dylan, which is not easy to do. It's a completely serviceable book; scholars and critics writing about Dylan will be able to use it, which gets it into the orbit of perhaps only five to ten other Dylan books of which I'm aware. A critical biography, Wilentz trains his analysis on five moments in Dylan's working life: the Blonde on Blonde sessions; the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour; the period of Christian apotheosis culminating in recor

Sep 04, 2012 Richard rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 19, 2010 Mark rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recentlyread
WAIT! Before all you anti-Dylan people (the "he can't sing, he just mumbles" crowd, which might be a little more than half the world population) see the title and proceed to ignore anything I have to say here: Read this book anyway! If you have ANY interest in music (beyond FM radio and Lady Gaga downloads) and its connections to poetry, politics, theatre, film, and culture generally, Bob Dylan in America presents a fascinating, readable, far-ranging history not just of Dylan's work and his plac ...more
Dec 01, 2014 Jay rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, audiobook
If you read Dylan's Chronicles Volume 1, you were exposed to the concept that you could take a few specific periods of time, write long explanative anecdotes about them, and call it an autobiography. Dylan made this work. In "Bob Dylan in America", Wilentz tries something very similar. He picks some specific songs, a recording session, a particular concert, a couple of tours, and the topic of plagiarism to explain how Dylan extends American music. But he does this with extended descriptions. I g ...more
Ralph Orr
Apr 09, 2013 Ralph Orr rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Bob Dylan in America is the story of Bob Dylan the man and his music: its creation, its evolution, its reinterpretation. The author places Bob Dylan in America: in its cultural and political history.

Those looking for full biography may be disappointed. Those looking for Bob Dylan the man, will find much of him here.

Readers learn how wide Bob Dylan's musical interest has been. Wilentz shows there is hardly an American musical genre that Bob Dylan has not appreciated, learned from and incorporate
Oct 12, 2010 Christopher rated it it was amazing
I have read many biographies of musicians and artists, always interested to learn about their creative methods. I am regularly disappointed with these biographies as they tend to focus on the more tabloid aspects of the composer's life. I am happy to find a book that focuses on the art more than the artist.

Written by a history professor at Princeton University, this book is as much about the American experience as it is about Bob Dylan. While the material is presented in chronological order, it
Ed Wagemann
Oct 25, 2010 Ed Wagemann rated it did not like it
I think I would rename this book, Why does Bob Dylan wear cowboy hats?
I'm a fan of Dylan, he's done some brilliant things. But Wilentz points out something--that every body knows, but doesnt pay too much attention to--which is that Dylan (like all music industry folks and pop culture personalities) has sculpted his own image--an image that may or may not have a whole lot in common with the REAL Robert Zimmerman (whatever that means).
I've been on both sides of the fence as to whether sculpting y
Jul 04, 2011 Alison rated it did not like it
The author might be one of the greatest historians of our time, but I could not get through his writing. I was hoping to learn about Bob Dylan. The author spent much of the time on other artists and how they influenced Dylan (yes, that's very important) but I was looking for a biography on Dylan the person, how Dylan grew up, how he became interested in music, his environment, schooling, and friends. I acknowledge it's important to know who influenced Dylan and the cultural environment at the ti ...more
Ian Allan
Jul 11, 2015 Ian Allan rated it did not like it
I think it was 10 discs. I listened to the first two. It wasn't bringing anything to the table. Spent a lot of time talking about Aaron Copland and Allen Ginsburg and what they were up to, but didn't did a good job of connecting the dots and explaining why it was that the author believed these men had a big impact on Dylan. Especially with Copland. I was expecting him to play snippets of Copland and Dylan songs, then explain why they were similar or connected. Instead, I heard phrases like, "Dyl ...more
This started off pretty good, slowly became more interesting, and then turned into a flat-out page-turner. My favorite parts were the Blonde on Blonde sessions, Rolling Thunder Revue, Delia & the entire end/recent period. Absolutely fascinating stuff!
Jun 11, 2015 Greg rated it really liked it
Meet me in the morning, 56th and Wabasha
Honey, we could be in Kansas
By time the snow begins to thaw
Mar 24, 2012 Marshall rated it it was ok
Wide-ranging and meandering, this isn't as snooze-inducing as Greil Marcus, but it's close.
Michael Elkon
Dec 14, 2016 Michael Elkon rated it really liked it
A Dylan book that's only loosely about Dylan. Wilentz shows off his chops as a historian by providing a description of a host of musical individuals and movements that affected Dylan at various points during his career: Aaron Copland and the Popular Front folk movement; the Beats; circuses; traveling minstrels; traditional hymn books from the 19th century; the figures behind Delia; a host of blues figures who inspired Love and Theft, and then finally Bing Crosby. Wilentz correctly presents Dylan ...more
Sep 23, 2010 Chris marked it as to-read
Shelves: us-20th-century
Need to read this. I know some of Wilentz's other work.

This book appeared the same month I saw Bob Dylan in concert: September 2010. Here is my review of that concert. Still need to read the book.

Have I Ever Told You About the Time I Saw Bob Dylan? (Concert Review)
Chris Schlect, 21 September 2010

A couple weeks back I went on a history field trip to visit a famous artifact. I saw Bob Dylan in concert. Bankroft Prize-winning historian Sean Wilentz asserts that Dylan holds a central place in 20th c
Jun 11, 2012 Seth rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America includes this passage describing Dylan’s 1966 performance in Paris at which he draped a U.S flag on the stage for the second half of the concert eliciting “U.S. go home!” jeers from the French audience:

…the curtains part, and there they see to their horror, attached to the backdrop, the emblem of everything they are coming to hate, the emblem of napalm and Coca-Cola and white racism and colonialism and imagination’s death. It is a huge fifty-star American flag
Todd Stockslager
Jun 04, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it
Shelves: pop-culture
Review title: Bob Dylan masquerading
In the official Bootleg Series Vol. 6 release of a 1964 Halloween-night concert form the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Dylan introduced one of his songs by announcing "It's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on! I'm masquerading." He drawls out the end of the last word into a laugh both delighted by the pun and knowing about the ironic truth of it. Here was the upper-Midwestern Jewish boy Robert Zimmerman entertaining the downturn cultural elite be
Gary Anderson
May 03, 2013 Gary Anderson rated it really liked it
Bob Dylan in America is historian Sean Wilentz’s study of how various currents and touchstones of American culture directly and indirectly affected the music of Bob Dylan. Not at all a biography, Wilentz’s book examines critical points in Dylan’s career and explores the American influences on those moments and phases.

Wilentz provides detailed accounts of these Dylan influences, including Aaron Copland, Blind Willie McTell, The Sacred Harp (an early American hymnal), and variations of the folk s
May 19, 2011 Keith rated it really liked it
Bob Dylan is 70 years old and has been making music for over fifty years. In this rather unconventional biography historian Sean Wilentz focuses not on the biography but rather the discography. The music Dylan wrote and sang, the music that influenced him and a history of these songs that Dylan recovered and reinterpreted. One example is Dylan's great version of the old blues song, "Blind Willie McTell." Wilentz relates the story of the original singer, the characters and stories that inspired t ...more
Aug 06, 2011 Mark rated it liked it
Shelves: music, history
I don't believe anyone will ever write a definitive biography of Bob Dylan, other than himself. But what is good about Wilentz's book is that he ties together so many threads of definitive- and probable- and sometimes, conjectured- sources for many of the songs in his songbook.
He keeps his own interaction with the subject limited to eyewitness memoir of concerts, rather than jumping into the fray with the character- unlike a couple of books I've already passed my judgment on in my collection.
Sep 29, 2010 Mark rated it liked it
Somewhere I once read that it is often advisable to skip an author’s introduction. I should have done that with this book, as it nearly spoiled everything. I wanted to love this book when it was released, as it covers my favorite artist and is written by Sean Wilentz, a real historian, and a man whose family has direct connections to the Greenwich Village scene in the early 60’s. The book’s premise is to delve into the vast American cultural and musical landscape and theorize on how they have in ...more
Jim Cherry
Sep 22, 2010 Jim Cherry rated it really liked it
When I got “Bob Dylan in America” by Sean Wilentz I didn’t know what to expect. Was it a biography? Was it a behind the scenes look at the man? What I did get was an unexpected surprise, “Bob Dylan in America” is a look at the traditional American influences on Bob Dylan and how they relate to specific time periods in Dylan’s career. While most books take a look at Dylan’s early period that made him famous, “Bob Dylan in America” also looks at later periods up until Dylan’s Christmas album last ...more
May 26, 2012 Matt rated it liked it
Wilentz's grasp of Bob Dylan's half-century as a major fixture of music and popular culture can't be denied. What can be disputed, heavily, is how well he pulls off the central thesis of his book: (Paraphrased) What Dylan says about America, and vice-versa. He enters shaky ground in the book's first section, tracing what he sees as the roots of Dylan's later art all the way back to the composer Aaron Copland and other early 20th century composers, producing only the thinnest strands of proof to ...more
Brendan Brohan
Jul 13, 2012 Brendan Brohan rated it it was ok

Just finished reading this book and Sean Wilentz has ensured that there is something for everyone in it. Unfortunately for me, much of what is in it is not to my taste. The book flip flops between Dylan biography, mostly as seen from the perspective of key albums in his career and academic treatise on the history of folk. The first chapter is a rather dense analysis of the works of Aaron Copland and how it may have influenced the young Dylan, not a fun start to the book. The second chapter deals
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Sean Wilentz (b. 1951) is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979

In his spare writing time, he is historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan’s official website,
More about Sean Wilentz...

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“The Gates of Eden,” as he called it that night, took us furthest out into the realm of the imagination, to a point beyond logic and reason. Like “It’s Alright, Ma,” the song mentions a book title in its first line, but the song is more reminiscent of the poems of William Blake (and, perhaps, of Blake’s disciple Ginsberg) than it is of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, vaunting the truth that lies in surreal imagery. After an almost impenetrable first verse, the song approaches themes that were becoming familiar to Dylan’s listeners. In Genesis, Eden is the paradise where Adam and Eve had direct communication with God. According to “Gates of Eden,” it is where truth resides, without bewitching illusions. And the song is basically a list, verse after verse, of the corrosive illusions that Dylan would sing about constantly from the mid-1960s on: illusions about obedience to authority; about false religions and idols (the “utopian hermit monks” riding on the golden calf); about possessions and desire; about sexual repression and conformity (embodied by “the gray flannel dwarf”); about high-toned intellectualism. None of these count for much or even exist inside the gates of Eden. The kicker comes in the final verse, where the singer talks of his lover telling him of her dreams without any attempt at interpretation—and that at times, the singer thinks that the only truth is that there is no truth outside the gates of Eden. It’s a familiar conundrum: If there is no truth, isn’t saying as much really an illusion, too, unless we are all in Eden? (“All Cretans are liars,” says the Cretan.) What makes that one truth so special? But the point, as the lover knows, is that outside of paradise, interpretation is futile. Don’t try to figure out what the song, or what any work of art, “really” means; the meaning is in the imagery itself; attempting to define it is to succumb to the illusion that truth can be reached through human logic. So Dylan’s song told us, as he took the measure in his lyrics of what had begun as the “New Vision,” two and a half miles up Broadway from Lincoln Center at Columbia, in the mid-1940s. Apart from Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso may have been the only people in Philharmonic Hall who got it. I” 1 likes
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