"The pieces collected here," writes Greil Marcus in the introduction to his just-published new book, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, "begin with a rumor and end with a presidential election. There are reactions in the moment and long looks back for undiscovered stories. But more than anything there is an attempt to remain part of the conversation that Bob Dylan's work has always created around itself: You have to hear this. Is he kidding? I can't believe this. You won't believe this—"
For more than four decades, Marcus has proven himself to be one our most astute critics of music and literature. In seminal works ranging from Mystery Train (1975) to The Shape of Things to Come (2006), he has opened our ears and eyes to the intuitions and implications of the culture taking shape around us. His friend and colleague Sean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University, has illuminated with uncommon acumen the early and later years of our republic in works such as The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2005, and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008).
In his newest book, Bob Dylan in America, published last month, Wilentz applies his alertness to the themes of American culture, his historical scholarship, and his personal perspective on Dylan's career to create a remarkable dual portrait of the singer and his country. Opening—as have many of his subject's performances in the past few years—with an invocation of Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan in America then traces Dylan's career forward from his first arrival in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s through his artistic resurgence in the 1990s, and, even more tellingly, backward through a pageant of musical influences that seem, over the past half-century, to have inhabited the singer's voice, where they still abide.
Wilentz's book stems, in his own words, from its author's curiosity "about when, how, and why Dylan picked up on certain forerunners, as well as certain of his own contemporaries; about the milieu in which those influences lived and labored and how they had evolved; and about how Dylan, ever evolving himself, finally combined and transformed their work. What do those tangled influences tell us about America? What do they tell us about Bob Dylan? What does America tell us about Bob Dylan—and what does Dylan's work tell us about America?" Marcus's book, an unparalleled retrospective of one listener's immediate encounters with Dylan's music through the years that coheres into a powerful, satisfying, and frequently revelatory narrative, might well be said to ask—and, in its own way, answer—the very same question.
Early in October, it was my great pleasure to talk about Dylan and his work with both Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz. For this joint interview, Greil and I were in a studio in New York, while Sean was on the telephone in California, lending the affair an accidentally appropriate nation-spanning breadth. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. —James Mustich
James Mustich: Let's start with a simple question: you each have a major new book on Bob Dylan, and the two of them have been published nearly simultaneously. How long ago were you aware that this was going to happen, and what were your feelings about it?
Sean Wilentz: About appearing simultaneously, or about two major books appearing about Bob Dylan? I'm delighted about the latter. It's great. Greil and I are old buddies and collaborators. And to have two different books about Bob Dylan's work is, I think, terrific. Greil, what do you think?
Greil Marcus: Well, it was a big shock to me when you called and brought this up quite a number of months ago. I said, "No-no-no, my book is coming out in the spring of 2011," and you said, "that's not what it says online." So I looked and you were right. I called my publisher and they said, "Oh, we moved it up; didn't we tell you?" I said, "No." And I said, "When do I have to have the manuscript in?" They said, "Oh, in about a month." I said, "I haven't started work on it yet—that's impossible." They put the thing on a rush schedule. I remember talking to you about it and saying, "We should do this like one of these old Ace paperbacks—like William Burroughs' Junkie, where you have that on one side and on the other side, reversed, Narcotics Agent—and sell them as one big book."
GM: But it wasn't too practical.
SW: Unfortunately, Ace has gone the way of all flesh. But it is kind of weird. Greil and I are, you might say, brothers beneath the skin, but reviewers do all kinds of strange things in comparing people's work, and that can lead to craziness. But other than that, I think it's a great day for Bob Dylan myself.
GM: Ideally, there will be a conversation sparked by both of these books in the ether between them. People who follow Bob Dylan, people who listen to him, people who are just now finding out about him—they love to talk about both the person and the work.
GM: If these books contribute to that conversation, that's their real life.
SW: That's why I'm saying it's great. And it is sort of odd. Dylan himself has been hard at work the last few years, doing all kinds of stuff, and giving people plenty to talk about. I do get the feeling that there's a great resurgence of interest in his work, not only by the Dylanophiles, but by others as well. Do you feel this, Greil, too?
GM: Well, I can tell you two stories. One is that in San Francisco recently Dylan did a concert that was only announced the day before: no advance ticket sales, low price, you had to show up and get in line. This was so unusual that the local TV stations covered it, and, in all the footage I saw, the people waiting in line were in their teens, twenties. It was just remarkable. In the course I'm teaching right now at the New School, which is on old American music (but Dylan is all through it), there are people who come to the class with some or even a lot of knowledge of Dylan, but many who come with none, and who are asking, "Where has this guy been all my life?" or "Where has my life been all this time?"
GM: At the very beginning of the class I show a clip from the last episode of The Sopranos, in which worthless, no-good son A. J. is sitting in an SUV with his new girlfriend. They're parked out in the woods, and she sticks in a tape of "It's Alright, Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)." A. J. has never heard Bob Dylan before, and he says, "God, this guy is very good." And she says, "It's hard to believe this song was written so long ago," as if it was the 19th century or something. I love that. It just sucks them in.
JM: I don't know what critics will say, but, as a reader, it was wonderful to be reading the two books in tandem. They conversed with one another, amplified one another, informed the listening that one naturally does when reading so much about Dylan. It was a delight to have both of them in front of me at the same time. In different ways you explore similar themes and then take them in different directions. I agree that having them both appear at the same time is wonderful for Bob Dylan and for people interested in him. But it's also wonderful for people interested in history, not just musical history but the kind of idea of history which courses through both your books.
Let me ask you both about your first encounters with Dylan and his work. Greil, your initial critical appraisal of Bob Dylan, as you write in the introduction to your book, was face to face with him in 1963. I'll quote from the book: "'You were terrific,' I said, never at a loss for something original to say." But he apparently did not feel the same way about his performance that day. [LAUGHING]
GM: That's right. I had gone to see Joan Baez at a show in a field in New Jersey. She was someone I often saw in the Bay Area in my hometown of Menlo Park, California. I had gone with a girlfriend. And Baez brings out this guy, a very scruffy, dusty looking character—and he sang a couple of songs, and I didn't even notice the rest of the show. The song that stuck in my mind was "With God On Our Side." It was one of those musical events—and they happen every once in a while—when you hear a song for the first time, maybe on the radio, maybe not, and you instantly remember all the words. The melody is seared into your mind. You sing the song in your head without even wishing to. And that was what was happening for the rest of the concert.
Afterwards, I saw him squatting in the dirt, trying to light a cigarette, and I went up to him and I said, as you mentioned, "You were terrific." He didn't even look up. He said, "No, man. I was shit. I was just shit." I learned something right at that moment about the difference between someone in the audience and somebody performing; they have very different standards. The work reaches the performer and reaches the listener in radically different ways. I was thrilled by that notion. I hadn't even caught the guy's name. I had to ask somebody, "That guy over there, do you know who he is?" "Yeah, Bob Die-lan." I said, "Oh, ok."
JM: Sean, you first saw him perform in 1964, at Philharmonic Hall, right?
SW: Yes, a year after Greil's encounter. Although by that time, I certainly knew very much who he was, and everybody in the audience did. It was in Philharmonic Hall in the then new Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, which was the premier showcase for high art music. I mean, it was the home of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and here were all of these kids, coming out of the subway, crawling into this temple of high culture (with such bad acoustics, unfortunately), and listening to this scruffy downtown folk-singer.
My Dad and his brother owned a bookshop in Greenwich Village, at the corner of 8th Street and MacDougal, which was a kind of literary crossroads of the 1950s and 1960s for the downtown literary scene, and just down the block, down MacDougal Street, were the Folklore Center and the Gaslight and all the places where Bob Dylan was first coming up. So as a kid (I'm somewhat younger than Greil, and I'm ten years younger than Bob Dylan), I was aware of all of that, and the only thing that was strange about it is that I thought it was all very normal. I thought that this was what growing up in America was like, hanging around with these people.
GM: It's interesting you say that, Sean. Because Milosz [Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet and the 1980 Nobel Laureate] once said something only a foreigner with unbridled contempt for the United States could say. He said, "The only two places one can really be free in America are Greenwich Village and Berkeley." So we touch each other from distant points. [LAUGHS]
SW: I think Liam Clancy once said that you came to Greenwich Village to be able to take your clothes off—he was coming from Ireland, of course. So I grew up in some of this, and my Dad scored a couple of free tickets to that concert. But I was very aware of what was happening.
The concert itself surprised everybody, because he not only sang his more familiar songs—I can't remember offhand if he sang "With God On Our Side," but he sang songs of that era, his very early political ones. But he also sang for the first time in New York, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Right, Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)," and "Gates of Eden," which just blew people away. So I knew some of what was coming, but boy, did I not know what was coming as well.
GM: That was true at all the Dylan shows that I went to in '64 or '65. He would come to Berkeley two or three times a year, and at every single show he would perform songs that hadn't been recorded, that hadn't been released, and they often had a drama and a tension—some of it coming from him, some of it coming from the audience—this frisson of uncertainty that so often produced the same effect that I had when I first heard him sing "With God On Your Side." You walked away knowing the song.
SW: And there was the feeling that he was at least six months to a year ahead of everybody in the audience, and no one quite knew what was going to happen. This is well before his decision to perform with a band and to go electric, as it were; people make a lot of that, and it was an important moment to be sure. But that tension that Greil talks about was there well before that happened. The flux that he was in, the rapidity with which he was expanding his own musical and literary vocabulary—all of that long antedated "Like a Rolling Stone."
GM: There's something that always mystified me as somebody from the West Coast, and I write about it in my book, in a piece on Todd Haynes's movie from 2007, I'm Not There. I never could understand—it was impossible for me to get my head around—what the furor was, what the sense of betrayal and anger and rage was about Bob Dylan's beginning to perform with a band, to play rock-and-roll, to get on the radio. Everybody I knew, and myself too, was thinking, "What took you so long? What were you waiting for?" It was only when I saw Todd Haynes's restaging of that moment at Newport, a fictional restaging, that I understood. Because in that moment, the way the scene is presented in that film, it's so loud, it's so harsh, it's so overwhelming—suddenly you're in a new world. You were sitting on a seat but the seat isn't there any more, and you have no idea where you are. And I realized for the first time that if I'd been in that crowd, I'm not sure how I would have responded. I wouldn't have responded with any kind of ideological yes or no. It just would have been "What's happened?" Whereas, when I first saw Dylan play with the Hawks, who would later be known as the Band, in December of 1965, it was the most glorious thing imaginable.
SW: This is one of the differences between Greenwich Village and Berkeley. In the Village there was this ideological element that was very strong. It was there in 1964, when he released Another Side of Bob Dylan. I talk about this in Bob Dylan in America. The reaction from some of the older commissars on the folk Left, like Irwin Silber, was in response to Dylan's music moving from the more political, Woody Guthrie-esque kind of songs to "inner-directed songs," as Silber put it. There was a feeling that Bob Dylan was becoming something different from the Bob Dylan that they wanted; what they wanted was the new Woody Guthrie.
And it wasn't just the commissars. There were lots of people then, lots of young people who truly identified politically, spiritually, and emotionally with that Bob Dylan as a continuation of the tradition, as the troubadour of the revolution. When he started moving away from that, the seismographs started going off, as early as 1964. And when he went electric—I was at the Forest Hills concert in '65, just after the Newport business...
GM: And it was close to a riot.
SW: And it was organized, or semi-organized. I think Al Kooper [Dylan's keyboardist at the time] said something like, "It's the revolt of the Beatniks; we've got to get out of here." He was knocked from his stool and all the rest of it. But that was a purposeful attack because Dylan had betrayed the Left, yes, but more than the Left—they felt he had betrayed a whole sensibility. People had become so identified with Bob Dylan, a certain Bob Dylan, that his move away from that image they had of him forced them to do the one thing that they didn't want to do, which is to question themselves. And when they questioned themselves, they went crazy. They went bonkers. It was as if the world that they had come to understand as true, as wonderful, as pure, was suddenly being snatched away from them by the very figure that they had identified with. That's why it was all felt so powerfully.
GM: That's something I finally came to understand, but only after learning that when Dylan reached England—on this same tour that caused such a furor in parts of the United States—the controversy and the conflict, and the smell of violence and fear in the concert halls, was unlike anything here. When I found out that the Communist Party in England, which ran a whole network of folk music clubs up and down Britain, had organized and recruited people to go to Dylan concerts, to try to disrupt them, to stage mass walkouts—then I knew there was something going on here that I didn't have a clue about.
JM: In your book, Greil, you write: "Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer. I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it, was my way of doing that."
Having read you on Dylan's music over the years, in many of the pieces now collected in the new book, it seems to me that you really have gotten inside the music in an extraordinary way, and you've discovered a whole country there, the invisible republic which you've written so eloquently about. Was there something about Dylan's work in particular that made this kind of approach to writing about music something you could reach for?
GM: What always attracted me to Dylan, and what has sustained me as a Dylan listener, or has always continued to surprise me, is his voice, the way he sings, the way he wraps his voice around certain words, the way he backs off from melodic moments, the way he moves forward to grab something in a song that, were anybody else performing it, they would have no idea it was even there. There is in that voice, at its best moments, 50 states and 400 years. That voice opens up many, many doors, and most of those doors open up onto the past, onto many very different pasts.
Sean is a professional historian. I am a critic who is pulled toward history. But Bob Dylan himself is a great historian. He is an historian who acts out history. So it always has a personal stamp. It always has a particular timbre. It always has a particular howl, or a moan, in that voice. But that voice calls up many shadows, many ghosts, many forebears, and sometimes those people are very shadowy and sometimes they are absolutely distinct. It's in the way that he rewrites, reframes, re-sings old songs, with a knowledge of American music that may be beyond that of any archivist. I just mean factual knowledge: who sang what, when; and who they played with; and what label they were on; and what were the conditions of the recording; and why did that person choose this song as opposed to that one—I mean, that kind of knowledge. All of that manages to transmit itself when he sings and when he plays, in a way that takes away any burden of having to know something or having to track any fact down, and allows you to travel to other places and to other times as you listen, and never lose your sense that you're lucky to be alive right now and listening to this at that moment.
JM: Sean, you and Greil collaborated on the editing of a collection of essays about ballads, The Rose and the Briar. Throughout that book, there's an assumption that there's a weight of history carried in the melodies and the lyrics of the ballads that the various writers celebrate and discuss. In Bob Dylan in America, you find that same kind of weight in the work of a contemporary artist. As I was reading your book, I wondered how your appreciation of Dylan's work, and your placing it in that kind of context, has been informed by your historical training and scholarship. Has the one enriched the other, and vice versa?
SW: Sure. I wanted very much to ask historical questions about Dylan's work, and to find circuits and webs of connection which might not be so apparent—may not even be fully apparent to Dylan himself, as much as he knows (and Greil is right—his understanding of the music is encyclopedic). But there are circuits and circuits, and I wanted to try and reconstruct those as best I could. Those are historical questions—they are the kinds of things that we as historians of culture, politics, what-have-you, do all the time. It's just that Dylan turned out to be a far richer source for all of that than most of the people I study.
The question of the ballads, though, and why Dylan was drawn to them so early on, is interesting. In Bob Dylan in America I recount a scene where he's at the White Horse Tavern with Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, and they're singing these lusty songs of Irish rebellion. Dylan is knocked out by them, and he wants to try and write that kind of song, but write it in a way that's relevant to an American experience. He describes this nicely in his memoir, Chronicles. He decides to go up to the New York Public Library and actually read microfilm, which in those days is what historians did; now we do it all on computers. But he actually did historical research, reading old newspapers from the 1840s and 1850s. There, he said, he found the template for everything he would write. It came out of the history of the United States as it was entering into an apocalyptic war that would eventually rewrite the Constitution and redeem America's original sin—or at least start the redemption of America's original sin. That is a historical moment that, as he said, became the template for everything that he would write after that.
Of course, he's writing about a great deal more than that. But he writes at the same time (remember this is in the early '60s) about how the distinctions between the past and the present seem to collapse. He would be walking down the street, and other kinds of ghosts, real ghosts, the ghosts of Greenwich Village, would be there: Edgar Allan Poe would be there, Walt Whitman. Then he would be hearing a song about the death of James Garfield, and it would seem as if it were a contemporary event. In other words, he lived in a zone in which he realized that this was not so far back—no, he realized, this is very much alive; it's very much here.
One of the marks of Dylan's genius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He can make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. In doing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan also does something that historians can't do, which is to actually commingle the past and the present in ways that are astonishing.
JM: There's a wonderful sentence in your book, towards the end—I think you're writing about "Love and Theft"—where you say that what Dylan was doing "was trying to create a magic zone where it was 1933 and 1863 and 2006 all at once, and where the full complexity of human nature might be glimpsed."
JM: That's beautiful.
GM: And yet, he can also shuffle those cards that Sean is talking about in a single song, and erase the boundaries between forms of music, ideas of music, musical traditions that other people cling to, and cling to sometimes very desperately, whether they do so in a scholarly way, in a community way, or in a way that is like tradition. I'm thinking of "Ballad of Hollis Brown," which is a song from 1964. It's about a farmer from South Dakota who kills his whole family because he can't feed them. He shoots his wife and his five children and himself. The song, as form, is blues, first line repeated twice, then a third line, over and over and over again. The melody and the structure of the song is from the old English-American ballad, "Pretty Polly," one of the most distinctive cadences in American music. But the voice, the point of view, the sense of bitterness is Dylan's own; the story as he tells it builds momentum. He puts you inside the farmer's mind. He keeps referring to the man's brain and what's happening in his brain until it's boiling. It builds this tension, and you, the listener, realize there has to be a release. It can't go on like this, and there is no solution. It's a story that reaches a pitch of complete nihilism, but also empathy. The singer has managed to put himself into the body of the character he's created, and sing as if he's telling that story as that person would want his story to be told. That's the kind of thing, to me, that has sustained Dylan's career and made it possible for somebody like me or somebody like Sean to devote many pages to it.
You know, Dylan said something to me the only time I met him—other than that 1963 encounter, where we were not exactly formally introduced. This was in 1997, and I had published a book about his Basement Tapes called Invisible Republic [reissued in paperback as The Old, Weird America], and he had read it and liked it. As another person once said about that book, it pretended to be about the Basement Tapes, but it was really about Dock Boggs, a great country blues banjo player from Virginia in the 1920s. The book was full of history, and it was about the kinds of doors that the Basement Tapes songs opened up, and where they could take you.
Dylan and I were introduced. What do you ask a writer? "What are you working on next?" he said. I said, "I don't really have a project." He said, "Why don't you do part two of Invisible Republic? You know, you only scratched the surface." He could not have been more right.
So it's that sense that there are so many worlds behind and within the songs to discover and live in, but also this sense of empathy for the people who appear in his songs. Dylan once said, maybe sarcastically, that all of his songs really ended with "Good luck." But that may be what he says to the people in his songs.
SW: I think that's right. Greil, what you say about so much happening in the space of a single song is really important, because it's not just that he sings different kinds of things, say, on an album, and assembles them all together. Take a more recent song, like "High Water (For Charley Patton)." It begins with the Mississippi-Louisiana floods of 1927, the floods that Charley Patton wrote about in the original "High Water." That's established at the beginning. But as you move through the song, you're moving back to talk about 19th-century Victorian figures, and Dylan's asking philosophical questions about materialism and spirituality. Then the next thing you know, you're at the Flood flood; you're back in Biblical times.
The album in which the song appeared was released on September 11, 2001. He couldn't have predicted that. But nevertheless, there it was, and when he's saying, "It's bad out there, high water everywhere, things are breaking up out there," it's about right now, too. So he has the ability in the space of—well, that's a fairly long song—but in the space of a single song, he has the ability to bring you through epochs of time. It has to do with his, in part, not respecting boundaries. Not just boundaries of style, not just boundaries of genre, which he can mix up in any one song, too (you think you're listening to rockabilly, and then all of a sudden, you're back in an old English ballad), but also in terms of understanding the ways in which time actually works and space actually works. He has very, very complicated ideas about that, and they show up in the songs, and they illuminate each of the specifics in extraordinary ways.
He has a wonderful song, "Talkin' World War 3 Blues," in which everyone has the same dream: the nuclear holocaust has occurred, and they're the only one left. They don't see anybody else around. Everybody realizes finally, "I'm the only one left." Well, everyone thinks of himself in history that way up to a point. There's a certain narcissism; we all think we're special. Dylan breaks through that with extraordinary power, and opens people up to think about their place in the world and in the cosmos and in history, much more powerfully than any other writer I know of in recent times.
JM: When he first arrived on the scene, he had a lot of fun trying to create a myth that he had come out of nowhere like some kind of hobo. But one of the interesting things in reading both of you about him is the recognition of how considered his education was, not only in the music that he came to master, but also—in your book particularly, Sean—in American history. You spoke before about him going to the New York Public Library to read microfilms of Civil War-era newspapers.
And one of the most delightful pieces in Greil's book is about his tour of Hibbing High School and what he found there. Would you talk about that for a little bit?
GM: I was giving a reading in a bookstore in Berkeley, and somebody asked the old question, "How does Bob Dylan come out of a nowhere town like Hibbing?" This woman stood up, and she was absolutely outraged. She said, "Has anyone here ever been to Hibbing?" Nobody had. She said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You don't know what you're talking about. This is a town steeped in radical traditions, as every town in the Iron Range has been for a hundred years. This is a town with poetry on the walls, and arguments going on in the streets that people have been having between Wobblies and Communists and Socialists and Social Democrats for a hundred years, and this is the world Bob Dylan came out of."
So we were there fast. [LAUGHS] We had to see for ourselves. The shock for me, the first shock, was seeing Hibbing High School. I went to a high school that was built in 1951. It was a modern, suburban California high school, a pretty good-looking place—and it was a shack, compared to Hibbing High, which opened in 1924. Hibbing High School is absolutely enormous. It's the most impressive public building I've ever seen outside of Washington, D.C. When Harry Truman met the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who was from Hibbing, he said, "Oh, I know Hibbing; that's the place where the high school has gold doorknobs." And it damn near does. It has a legendary auditorium, which is not like a high school auditorium—it's like a great opera house. That's one of the stages where Bob Dylan first performed, and you can imagine him up on that stage and seeing not just his high school classmates in the audience, but the whole world before him.
But the most unusual and the most striking thing about our trip to Hibbing High was that during a tour the next day, an organized tour, B. J. Ralston, who had been Bob Dylan's high school English teacher, was there. He was then in his eighties and he was feeble, but with a completely clear mind. He sat in his old English classroom where he had taught Bob Dylan. Forty or so people crowded into the room, and the notion was we were going to hear him reminisce about Robert—Robert Zimmerman. He mentioned a couple of things. He mentioned that Robert always sat in the seat directly in front of the podium from which he lectured, and he quoted a Bob Dylan song about "You gotta sit up near the teacher if you want to learn anything," and he was full of pride about that. That was five minutes. But then for the next 20 minutes, he taught a class in poetry to the 40 visitors there. There were many poems he discussed. But he kept returning to the "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams. He approached that poem from so many different angles, from so many different points of view, putting an emphasis on one word (there are very, very few words in this poem), putting all the weight on another word (it might be "chicken," it might be "red," it might be "rain"), and then opening up the poem as if it were a flower in high speed film.
Forget about the grandeur of the high school. Forget about the magnificence of the auditorium. Think about how rare it is for anyone to encounter a teacher who can do those kinds of things, who can open you up to the notion that there is an infinite amount of meaning and possibility and inspiration in the smallest thing before you. That's what this teacher could do. That was the poetry on the walls. Yes, there is literally poetry chiseled on the walls of Hibbing High School, from Wordsworth and any number of other people, and it's pretty great stuff. But this was a different kind of poetry.
SW: Also, people forget, as you were saying at the beginning, Greil, about the political traditions that were all around Hibbing. I have a little story in my first chapter about Aaron Copland, of all people, who stumbles into a Communist Party meeting in 1934 while staying at Lake Bemidji, which is just west of the Mesabi Iron Range, not all that far from Hibbing. At that time, that whole part of Minnesota was full of Finnish Communists and other leftists, whose ideas were very much in the air when Bob Dylan was growing up there. Hibbing was a mining town with very activist workers.
But lots of other things were in the air, too. There's all of the polka music. When people listen to Dylan's Christmas album and are amazed by "Must Be Santa"—well, that comes right out of a soundscape that was very much a part of Hibbing in the 1940s and 1950s. We often hear about his listening to the Shreveport, Louisiana radio station, but there was a lot more going on in and around Hibbing than people can imagine. There was the circus that was always coming to town. Dylan's talked about how the circus gave him all kinds of imagery and ideas. He made up myths about the circus when he first came to New York, but the fact is that it was there and it really did turn him on to certain kinds of entertainment. He was very shrewd about what was going on. He always talked about the freaks in the circus, the bearded ladies and all the rest of it, and how there was an illusion being portrayed, but it was an illusion that was trying to get you to be both feeling superior to these people at the same time as you were feeling sorry for them. He was very, very alert to performance as a young man.
So all of this stuff is going on in "nowhere." And nowhere is not nowhere at all.
JM: You both write in different ways about his memory of all these things and, especially, all these sounds. There's a line, in your book, Greil, which I love. You call Time Out of Mind "the big night around the campfire Bob Dylan spent with the ghosts of old American music." And you write wonderfully about Harry Smith and the importance to Dylan of his Anthology of American Folk Music, while Sean goes into many other kinds of other music—Aaron Copland, Crosby, Sinatra...
JM: ...and you talk about Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, in which he presented a kind of living history that seems available to him in ways that it's not available to anyone else. First, because no one else has absorbed it all the way he has, and second because it remains present to Dylan at all times in a singular way. It's related to his borrowing of phrases and imagery from other sources, which you write about quite well...
SW: Well, it's available to everybody. It's just that he does something very special with it.
JM: Is it because all these sources are somehow more alive to him than to anybody else?
SW: That's right. He captured them, and he understands them in a way others don't. First of all, he's not interested in being authentic and reproducing something; he's interested in what's alive and what's around him. In 1963, he composed for the Newport Folk Festival a sort of prose poem for the program. It's called "To Dave Glover." Glover was a buddy of his from Minneapolis, who was in fact known as Tony "Little Sun" Glover, the harmonica wizard. In that piece Dylan talks about how all of these songs that he's picked up on are very important to him, but that he now had to write about his day, and that he couldn't write songs about his day without the others, but he had to talk about his own experience to transform the others into something different—again, to collapse the past and the present.
But he was also somewhat lucky, because he arrived on the scene and he made his way into folk music at a time when a lot of other people were collecting and making available things that hadn't been available before. Harry Smith is one of them; he was early on, in the early '50s. But Sam Charters, who is a person who doesn't often get enough credit for what he did, was putting out his albums of country blues and rural blues. There was a whole blues mafia that was getting together in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, that was finding all of these old records and putting them back onto 33-1/3 records that you could actually listen to—making it all available in new ways. That was all happening right at the time when Bob Dylan was in Dinkytown in Minneapolis and then coming into the Village. So there's this cornucopia of American music that suddenly opened up. It's why, in fact, places like Izzy Young's Folklore Center in New York were so important. Something that seemed to have been suppressed, something that seemed to have been unavailable to anybody in the 1940s and 1950s suddenly was there—it was like a feast, and Bob Dylan was there to pick up on all that. He happened to be in the right place at the right time.
GM: There is a moment in his book, Chronicles, that to me is like an explosion of light in the way that it throws his whole career and his whole sensibility into relief. My book is a collection of pieces—starting in 1968, going up to September of this year—of one listener's continuing encounter with one singer. It is an imaginary conversation, in some ways, with pieces written along the way over a long period, with the writer often being wrong, often misunderstanding, and maybe with a perspective broadening in time.
But the moment where you can see Bob Dylan's sensibility, his way of being in the world, his sense of obligation and of vocation, all coming together, is when John Hammond, his producer, gives him an acetate, a pre-release copy of a collection of songs by a then-unknown and forgotten blues singer named Robert Johnson of Mississippi from the mid '30s that he's going to be putting out. He gives it to Dylan and says, "Listen to this; you might find it interesting."
Dylan does listen to it. He's never heard of Robert Johnson. Dave Van Ronk, who he plays the record for, who knows Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr and everyone else, he's never heard of Robert Johnson. Dylan is thunderstruck listening to Johnson. He says, "I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard." He writes down the words of the songs. He tries to understand how they're put together. They seem more elegant, more complete—and yet skeletal—than anything he's ever encountered before. He says, "It's hard to imagine field hands at hop-joints really responding to, really understanding songs like these. Maybe Robert Johnson was looking at an audience that only he could see, an audience far in the future. In other words, me, Bob Dylan. He was singing for me. He was waiting for a listener like me to get him, in a way that nobody could at the time."
Well, you can take that statement apart, and you could flay it and throw in the garbage for a whole lot of reasons. And yet that is a visionary statement, and it says an enormous amount about the relationship between the listener and the performer that is a lifetime commitment on both sides, that has sustained Dylan's career from both sides. That's what I have wrestled with all these years with so much pleasure, but of course, never found the moment to crystallize it as well as Dylan does with that story.
JM: Clearly, he is a man who lives with a sense of history, but the sense of history is conveyed by the voices in these songs. Sean, you say something very interesting in your book: Dylan's story, you write, "is decidedly not the story of a baby boomer. Although he is stamped as a 1960s troubadour, Dylan, who was born in 1941, is at pains to point out that he is really a product of the 1940s and the early 1950s, which he remembers as a long-past era of political giants, like Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin."
JM: And you quote and paraphrase from Chronicles, "'The world was being blown apart….' Chaos and fear and smaller leaders came in their wake…. 'you could feel the old world go and the new one beginning … like putting the clock back to when B.C. became A.D.'"
SW: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.
JM: In the '90s, when he went back and made the two records before Time Out of Mind, Good As I've Been To You and World Gone Wrong, on which he truly was summoning to the campfire—to use Greil's phrase—the ghosts of old American music, he seems to get back in touch with something that's before his boyhood, deep back, in that B.C. world. And then come Time Out of Mind and "Love And Theft," which, as Greil describes it at one point, follow this character wandering through a landscape that's very old, suffused with a sense of time but devoid of any actual, or rather, any documentable history—it's like he's following human nature into a different kind of history entirely, not normally what we call history but very much a vivid composite of past and present.
GM: Well, take the story I just told, where Dylan says, "Maybe Robert Johnson was aiming at an audience that only he could see, one far in the future." On those two albums, Good As I've Been To You and World Gone Wrong, in '92 and '93, for me he's clearing his throat of twenty years of wasted time. Here he is, singing these old blues and folk songs, stuff that in his own repertoire preceded his first album, the kind of stuff he was singing in '59, '60, '61, in people's living rooms, in maybe radio stations, in clubs. He's singing these old songs. He's investing them with extraordinary life and humor, and regret, compassion, and glee, with an inventiveness on the guitar that's utterly new in his own musical life. Yet, who is he singing to? He is not looking at an audience far in the future; he is looking at an audience far in the past. The people he's singing to are the people who first sang these songs.
There's another wonderful moment in Chronicles where he does this Mickey Spillane imitation, where he says, "The dead can't speak for themselves, so I'm speakin' for 'em." Well, on those records, he was speaking for the dead and he was speaking to the dead. And raising the dead.
JM: Sean, your book so richly evokes Dylan's relationship to America. I'm interested in any thoughts you have on how newspaper history, if you will, intersects with these songs, and how the maturation of Dylan's art from the '90s through the last few albums seems to be coming to grips with the fact that the big history that he grew up with in the '40s and '50s really doesn't have as much resonance for people now as it did then. We live in a different world in terms of our own sense of history as a vital force.
SW: In the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, he talks about how virtual reality has taken over, or is taking over—he calls it "hegemony"—and people are just not able to write songs like the ones that he is singing for the dead and out of the dead; they can't write those kinds of songs any more. He makes it pretty clear that, in some ways, all he can do to battle this hegemony, as he calls it, is to sing those songs, and to continue to write his own songs out of that tradition, out of those traditions, the many traditions, not just one. It's not exactly the attitude of a big rock star who thinks he's all powerful; this is a guy who feels like he and the world are up against forces that are so complex and so overpowering that singing these songs is all that he can do.
But this goes back with him—it's not just a matter of the mass media today. In a song like "Blind Willie McTell," he can talk about the world being full of greed and corruptible seed, and that seems to be all that there is, and yet, in the end, it's Willie McTell singing. It's the man who can sing the blues like nobody else, that comes back like a grace note, as something that can put a hedge against all of the world's cruelties and stupidities and corruption, and give you a breather from the hegemony. Well, I think that's what Dylan's trying to do: to create a space artistically where something else can take shape, can take life—where there's hope. It goes back to what Greil was saying earlier about "Good luck" being at the end of every song. You're up against a lot in this world, and you may be up against more now than you were in 1961. But as he says, he finds his lexicon in the songs, and in the songs he can find a measure of hope to battle against it. But that means more than just protesting; it's not about protesting. Well, maybe it is always about protesting—all of his songs are protest songs. But it's really about exploring realms of human imagination that he finds being flattened out in this virtual reality in which we live.
Something like the same thing is true with history, too. I do think that he is aware of how historical consciousness is being flattened out. It's not just that we're all catching on to the latest wave, and that there's a kind of historical attention deficit disorder—cultural attention deficit disorder—settling in, so we don't remember what happened last week, let alone what happened in 1861. But I think he understands that his connection to the past and to the present is something that is in danger of being eviscerated, and one of the reasons that he is singing the songs in the way that he's doing it, the way that is mediating between past and present, is precisely to keep that connection alive as best he can, if not for the masses out there, at least for himself. And to keep sane. One of the reasons that any person writes anything is to try and keep his own sanity together, and I think he's doing that as well.
GM: If Bob Dylan really is an historian in and of himself in his work, in his performances, he is also an historian with a unique sense of humor. It's not just a wicked, sardonic sense of humor (although it can be that, too). But it can be an uproarious, laugh-out-loud, "you've got to be kidding me," "have you heard this?" sense of humor. There's always been a bit of a stand-up comic in him. It was very evident early on in his career when he used to talk a lot on stage, something he doesn't do now. These days the humor is mostly in the songs and in the way they're played. But if Dylan is an historian, he is doing this because, yes, there is a mission; yes, there is a need; yes, there is a goal—but it's also interesting in and of itself, and it's pleasurable in and of itself. That comes through to whoever is listening.
JM: Let me close with this question: if you were trying to explain all that we've been talking about to someone who knows nothing about Dylan—to say, "To get a sense of what we've been trying to articulate here, just listen to this"—what would you pick?
GM: I think I would pick Another Side of Bob Dylan. This was an album that was recorded in one day. It's full of flubs and mistakes. It's utterly human. It's incredibly funny. It's got some songs that are tremendously painful and difficult to listen to. It's got some overblown, pretentious songs. I think it's an album that nobody's ever really gotten a handle on. When it was released, it kind of slipped in and out of the public eye, as if it had never been. People didn't know what to make of it, and they kind of didn't want to know what this other side was.
I would never try to convince anybody to like anything. So I'd just say, "See what you think of this." Then if that person came back to me and said, "I don't know what to make of this at all," then maybe we would talk about it. But more likely, the person would say, "I hated this and I hated that, but that thing about 'I'm gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange so I look like a walking mountain range,' that was really funny"—and we'd take it from there.
SW: It's funny that you picked that album, Greil. It's a title that he didn't like particularly, Another Side of Bob Dylan. But I've been asked this question a lot lately, as I've been going around the country discussing my book. The song I keep coming back to is off that album: "Chimes of Freedom." The reason I'd choose that one, especially for a young person, is that I think that's a song where you can see his imagination opening up in ways that it hadn't before, where he takes basically a thunderstorm, a summer city thunderstorm, and out of that manages to write not only beautifully about that thunderstorm, but about all the other aspects of his work that are important as he hears the thunder peeling out for "the rake," and "the mateless mother," and ending with "for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe"—with all of those intonations that are offbeat, that are strange. I think that a lot of what Dylan was aiming for crystallized in that song, and it's accessible in ways that some of the other ones aren't. I wouldn't say you have to like this or not. But I would give it to someone to try and understand what Bob Dylan is about; it would probably be right at the top of my list.
--October 7, 2010
Please sign in to add a comment on this article.
- I Always Prefer Books That Are Inevitable: David G...
- A Song in the Dark: Julia Glass
- Sonic Boom: Trevor Cox and 'The Sound Book'
- Rose-Colored Glasses: Kostya Kennedy on 'Pete Rose...
- Invisible Country: Phil Klay and Bill Cheng
- Everything That Lives Is Holy: Susan Minot on Thir...
- Surrender to the Wind: Sarah Lewis on The Rise
- Pioneer Girl: Bich Minh Nguyen
- Beneath the Surface: Jeff VanderMeer on 'Annihila...
- "I Love to Travel Alone": Molly Antopol and Justin...
And women too. Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others. Warning: choking-up hazard.
Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.
Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.