Nearly half a century after he released his first album, Bob Dylan continues to release new albums (including, last year, a compilation of Christmas songs) and tour the country playing concerts. Sean Wilentz, an American history professor at Princeton University and “historian-in-residence” at BobDylan.com, traces Dylan's influence on American culture in his new book, Bob Dylan in America. Here, he discusses how Dylan shaped his generation—and whether there's a similar artist in today's music scene.
Eleanor Barkhorn: The book is called Bob Dylan in America. What's Dylan's place in our nation's cultural history history?
Sean Wilentz: He's the most important songwriter of the last 50 years, in a culture in which songwriting has always been a major force, a major component.
Then there's the '60s. Dylan's work is indelibly linked to that time, in part because so much of his greatest work came out of '64, '65, '66. But the '60s became kind of a burden or a weight on the entire culture, certainly to people my age. It became transformed into something bigger than it was.
It was thought of as the revolution. Well, a lot of very important things happened. Jim Crow was smashed, the beginnings of the movements that would end communism in Eastern Europe—all sorts of things were happening all around the world in the late 1960s, throughout the 1960s. And Dylan was very much a part of that. And his music was very much a part of that. It expressed what he wanted to express, but people caught onto it as an expression of what they were feeling, what they were thinking.
That said, though, it's dangerous to limit any artist to a particular period. You might think of Yeats in terms of the Easter rebellion in Ireland, or Wordsworth around the French Revolution, right? But in fact their lives and their art expand far beyond that.
He's influenced by things—by music, by poetry, by writing—that came long before the 1960s. He wasn't born just full blown out of that moment. And he has continued to work and to write and to reflect and to produce great art, long, long after 1969. So it's important to see Dylan's work in that longer view. And that's sort of what I try to do in the book.
Barkhorn: Who do you think is the Dylan of this generation?
Wilentz: I don't know. What do you think? I think it's something that each one of us has to answer for him or herself.
Another way of asking the question, I suppose, is whether there's a figure of his stature on the current scene. That's hard. I don't see that person, but I certainly see compelling people out there in all kinds of ways. My son is very drawn to Jay-Z. I like Jay-Z's music, too. Do I think Jay-Z is Bob Dylan? No. But a lot of the answer to that will be dependent on how the culture forms over the next 20, 30 years. I can't predict what's going to form the culture of you guys, but I can tell you what formed me.
Barkhorn: I wonder if it will end up not being a musician, but some in a different form of media that's more popular in the Internet age.
Wilentz: Could be. It's never any one figure, either. Bob Dylan is not the only person who's important to come out of the 1950s and 1960s: the people who influenced him, the people he's influenced. It's just that he's certainly a major figure. But you know, other writers, other poets, novelists, actors, stage actors, they're all important as well.
The world wouldn't be the same without Tom Stoppard. The world wouldn't be the same without a whole bunch of other people. There's no one person who defines a culture. But Dylan's had an incredibly important role—not just for my generation, I think—in changing the tone of the culture in all kinds of ways.
For example, one of the things Bob Dylan did was almost single-handedly kill Tin Pan Alley—the whole traditional form of publishing and producing and recording music. Now, his doing that changed music for everybody. That doesn't mean people are going to be writing and singing and performing the way he does, but they're not going to be performing anything like the world of Tin Pan Alley before Bob Dylan.
Barkhorn: And you say in the book that it's Dylan's more recent work that made you want to start writing about him.
Wilentz: He's been very blessed, I supposed, to survive. He's blessed by survival, so he's able to continue to produce and to produce some extraordinary work.
My own connection wasn't so much the very recent stuff, but it was this moment in the early, mid-90s, when my dad was dying—that was a story there that was very powerful. And then a concert I went to in 1997 when I reconnected with the music live. It was an incremental thing, a process of reconnecting with a body of work that developed gradually. It wasn't any one thing—it wasn't simply my response to Love and Theft or any of the later albums, although Love and Theft was important.
Barkhorn: I've always wondered what exactly it means to be a historian in residence of a website.
Wilentz: [laughs] I have, too. I have, too. Basically the story is, I got this gig basically to do this one thing—if I liked the record, I would write about it. And I liked the record, and I wrote about it, and they liked what I wrote.
The nice thing about websites is, as a moonlighting thing, you can write as often as you want, on a whim. So I wrote a couple of more things on the site, and brought it up with the people at Bob Dylan.com and in Dylan's office. And I was writing a fair amount, and I made up the title. I made it up sort of facetiously because, you know, how can you be in residence in cyber space? I was very aware of that. It was kind of a joke, but it also ratifies, or codifies a set of beautiful friendships, and my closeness to those people. How close I feel to them.
Barkhorn: Does your work on Bob Dylan make you cooler in the eyes of your students, or were they born too long after his early work came out?
Wilentz: There are a lot of my students who are basically my children's age—people who came of age with parents who were at the younger end of the baby boom. And some of them are very much into Dylan's work—his earlier work, but also some of his recent stuff. So they're curious, and they ask me about it some.
I don't know that my coolness factor goes up or down particularly. I guess you'd have to ask them. I can't say I walk around campus thinking that the students admire me for that particularly. The student you'd probably heard of is Elena Kagan—she was one of my very first students, and I advised her senior thesis. Elena Kagan did not come to study with me because of Bob Dylan.
Barkhorn: With all the writing you've done on Dylan, are you still able to be a fan?
Wilentz: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! I love going to Bob Dylan concerts. I love hearing him. I think my appreciation has made me a better fan—has deepened my enthusiasm for his work, including the stuff I don't like because it makes the stuff I do like all the better. I think being a fan has certainly propelled or reinforced my interest in finding out more about him—or more about his work. He as a person is not as interesting to me as his work.
Barkhorn: What songs or albums do you recommend to people who are just starting to get into Dylan's music?
And then the three that follow really have to be heard as a whole, though there are particular songs on each of those albums.
So, you know, that's how you start. But that would be a start, it wouldn't be an ending. Because there's plenty on Blood on the Tracks, plenty on Love and Theft, plenty throughout the career.
Understand, too, that one ought to take all that work in context. There's early Yeats and a later Yeats. There's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and there's Finnegan's Wake—both of those are James Joyce, but obviously from different periods in his development. And I think you have to do the same with Dylan.