Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

There have likely been hundreds of books written about Bob Dylan over the years. I must have a small library of books that discuss the music, life, and poetry of Robert Allen Zimmerman. Many books were written by journalists while other by academics. Sean Wilentz, the author of Bob Dylan in America is a Professor of History at Princeton University and is historian in residence at Dylan’s official website. Needless to say his credentials are superb.

This book is not for the casual Dylan fan. It is not written in “academese” but only readers who have followed Dylan’s work for years will appreciate it. Every time I read a new Dylan book, I always learn something from the author. I usually appreciate pieces of Dylan’s works taken out of context. Thus, if I were to write a book or article about him, I would say how individual lines songs have affected me over the years. A song that didn’t hit me in 1965 could have great personal significance 40 years later.

I usually read a book to keep my mind off an unpleasant situation. I read this book on the subway on the way to work, in the central jury room waiting to be called, on at home on Yom Kippur. The book certainly kept my mind off my hunger pangs as I fasted. Yes, I did spend a few hours in synagogue and said Yizkor for my father.

The major theme of this work which sets it apart from other Dylan books is the discussion of the influences on Dylan. Wilentz discusses Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copeland, Allen Ginsburg, and Willie McTell among others. The book has motivated me to seek out some recordings of Blind Willie McTell. As an academic librarian I am concerned with plagiarism. From pages 308-17 or so Wilentz discusses whether Dylan has plagiarized by adapting earlier works into his own. Dylan’s supposed plagiarism was part of the folk music process that he inherited from Woody Guthrie and others. One of Dylan’s later albums is named Modern Times which is the same as a Charlie Chaplin movie. This is certainly not plagiarism. Other examples are given in the text.

This book review is written by a fan for other fans. I am certainly willing to lend my copy to my Facebook friends, but they must return it. This book belongs in my personal library.

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