Bob Dylan in America

In This Review

Bob Dylan In America
By Sean Wilentz
Doubleday, 2010
400 pp. $28.95
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The distinguished Princeton historian Wilentz lives a double life: he is also a well-known commentator on the work of Bob Dylan and has been nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes on a Dylan album. In Bob Dylan in America, Wilentz brings his professional historical skills together with his appreciation for Dylan's work and for the rich American musical traditions from which it emerged. The result is a daring and unconventional book that does not always succeed -- but that always provokes and challenges. It is both a deep historical exploration of American music, ranging from the Delta blues to Aaron Copland, and a close commentary on various aspects of Dylan's career. The essays on American music history are extraordinary for their depth and detail, but they often seem too far afield from Dylan's work to belong in the book. The material on Dylan himself is deeply felt and often powerfully presented, but there are times when the fan appears to beat out the historian. Nevertheless, readers (or listeners, as the audio edition of the book includes snippets of music to illustrate some of the arguments) will find their interest in American music and Dylan stimulated and enriched. Popular music is one of the United States' most distinctive and influential forms of expression; if more historians worked like Wilentz to integrate America's music into the American story, the national narrative might become richer, more comprehensive, and perhaps even a bit wiser.