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.