Chapter 16: American original

Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 9:05pm
By Paul McCoy Chapter16.org

Few musical artists in the last century are as revered and reviled, discussed and dissected as Bob Dylan. With an eclectic career spanning 50 years, Dylan provides an astonishingly deep well of material for writers and critics to explore — and explore they have, though rarely to such critical acclaim as the work of Sean Wilentz has received. With The New York Times bestseller Bob Dylan in America,now out in paperback, Wilentz provides a unique series of takes on specific periods in Dylan’s life and work, including his time in Nashville.

Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, is no stranger to readers of political history. In 2006, he won the Bancroft Prize for The Rise of American Democracy, and has written many other works of political and cultural history. Hardcore Dylan fans will recognize him for his role as historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan’s official website, as well as for his Grammy nomination for the liner notes to Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan, Live 1964: The Concert at Philharmonic Hall. Wilentz is a talented writer and an artful storyteller. His insights into Dylan’s life and work, and his historically layered approach to them, tell us as much about American culture as they do the artist. With the paperback release of Bob Dylan in America, Chapter 16 caught up with Wilentz by email to talk about Dylan, his literary influences, and his work in Nashville.

How did a Princeton historian known primarily as a writer of political history become interested in writing about Bob Dylan?

I’m not sure I agree with the premise that it’s odd for a writer of political history to be interested in writing about Bob Dylan. Music and politics have been entwined throughout American history, and that’s no less so with Dylan — even long after he ceased writing what many of his fans and his critics consider his “political” music.

But I also have an unusual connection to the whole subject. My family ran a bookshop that was at the heart of the Greenwich Village literary and music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up amid all of that, my connection to Dylan’s work began there, and the connection is an unending source of inspiration, so rich was that time and that place. I try to weave the personal element through the book, though (I hope) without turning the book into a memoir. For in the end, I do write history — if I’m good at writing anything, I’m good at that — and I think it’s fair to say that the book’s basic approach is historical.

You write about Dylan’s literary influences, as well, particularly the echo of William Blake in Blonde on Blonde. Would you mind giving an example of another of Dylan’s other literary influences and explain the way he incorporated that writer’s work into his own?

Rimbaud. When he first read Rimbaud’s line “Je est un autre,” Dylan says, the bells went off and it made perfect sense. About the time he recorded Another Side of Bob Dylan, two years before Blonde on Blonde, he was telling friends that Rimbaud was where it’s at. And I see those two albums as the beginning and end of a progression in Dylan’s work, built out of his own '60s pop version of the long, immense, and rational derangement of the senses. Other strong literary influences, though, in almost all of Dylan’s work including Blonde on Blonde, would include Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. And on and on.

You describe at length the sessions for Blonde on Blonde calling it a “convergence of New York hip and Nashville virtuosity.” Can you talk a bit about how the Nashville musicians and New York musicians worked together? Can you put a finger on what made the combination work?

The basic arrangement was that Charlie McCoy, the great harmonica player, was something of the leader of the Nashville session men while Al Kooper was Dylan’s emissary to the Nashvillians. All overseen, of course, by the producer, Bob Johnston, though Johnston was known as a producer who just let his performers do what they wanted to do. Kooper and Dylan would work on a song in private; Kooper would convey it all to the musicians; and it would all come together in the studio. Not that it always came so quickly: There are scenes in the book of the musicians killing many hours while Dylan worked over his lyrics. But sometimes — as with “Visions of Johanna,” or the slew of songs cut on the late session date — it all came together with astonishing quickness.

But that’s just the process. There was also the musical bonding. Someone I spoke with who was around the sessions — it may have been Charlie McCoy — recalled that some of the Nashville musicians knew Dylan as a good songwriter and nothing else. Dylan and the other hipsters, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson, certainly knew about Nashville, but couldn’t have known too much about this particular group of sidemen (except McCoy, who contributed the Grady Martin-style Tex-Mex guitar runs on “Desolation Row”). So there was some “getting to know you” in the studio. The amazing thing is how quickly that passed, at least when it came to the music.

One thing to remember here is that the Nashville musicians could play just about anything and do it well. Another is that they were all so young — the New Yorkers and the Nashvillians. It wasn’t a matter of brash Greenwich Villagers colliding with a bunch of old country pickers. Kenny Buttrey, the drummer, had just turned 21, or was just about to! I think that had a lot to do with it — the respect that comes with being young and knowing the music so well, which cuts through whatever cultural gaps there were. They’d all grown up listening to the same music, or a lot of the same music. Remember, too that Johnny Cash had already long been singing Dylan’s songs and praising him to the skies. Nashville and New York were like two different worlds in some ways (as Al Kooper recounts in Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards), but that can be exaggerated. Plus, as Kooper suggests, the musicians showed their visitors the best kind of Southern hospitality.

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.