Historian Sean Wilentz on the Mysterious Bob Dylan

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Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Bob Dylan in New York City during the recording of the album Bringing It All Back Home

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has forgone his usual subjects — the political historian and occasional journalist has written books such as The Age of Reagan and The Rise of American Democracy — to focus instead on something entirely different: Bob Dylan. His new book, Bob Dylan in America, tackles the legendary musician with the same amount of meticulous attention to detail that one might expect from one of Wilentz's über-historical tracts. He traces Dylan's influence across wide swaths of 20th century history and culture — from the socialist movement of the 1930s to Bing Crosby's Christmas carols — to explore his place in America, and America's place in his music.

Let's get one thing straight. This is not a biography of Bob Dylan.
No, not at all. I never wanted to write a biography of Dylan, because there are so many good ones already out there. This focuses on his influences and the way he has drawn from different aspects of American culture.

You're the in-house Dylan historian on his official website, BobDylan.com. How did you get that job?
I did a little bit of writing about him in the '90s for a magazine. Around 2001 I got a call from BobDylan.com asking me to write something for the website about his new album, Love and Theft. I said I'd only write about it if I liked it, and I did. So I wrote that, and then I wrote the liner notes to the release of his 1964 Philharmonic Hall live concert album — which I'd actually attended — which got nominated for a Grammy. I didn't win, but I got to go to L.A. and hang out with Alicia Keys and Usher and Green Day, which is a weird sort of experience for a Princeton professor.

In your book, you liken Bob Dylan to Picasso.
There are some artists who stay the same their whole careers. Their paintings or their songs never stray much from one sound or look. But then there are artists who take these sharp turns into uncharted territory. Picasso is one of them, and Dylan is one of them.

What are some of Dylan's sharp turns?
Over the years, his style changes in seemingly dramatic ways that often disturb or unsettle his loyal fan base. He moved from protest, statement-oriented tunes to more personal songs, then from folk to rock 'n' roll at the Newport Folk Festival. For a while, he got into black gospel music from the deep South. Later he became an Evangelical Christian. He hits a kind of barren period in the 1980s. Then, his creative outburst over the last 10 years sounds unlike anything else he's done.

What about Bob Dylan, the crafted persona? You say he is a character, a performance. But onstage he seems so effortless.
A great performer is someone who can take a style and make it real. That's what Dylan has managed to do all along. When you go to see him live, he knows it's a show and you're there to be entertained. He's putting on an act to perform his art, and that act includes his boots, his hat and the way he is standing. He alters his intonation and the way he plays around with the songs almost every time. People get upset that "The Times They Are a-Changin' " doesn't sound like it did on the record.

Well the song is called "The Times They Are a-Changin,' " so ...
Exactly! How can you expect a performance of "The Times They Are a-Changin' " to not itself change?

Your dad owned a bookshop in Greenwich Village during the 1960s, so you actually met many famous Beat figures. In fact, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg met in an apartment right above that bookstore. Growing up, did you realize the significance of what you were witnessing?
I just thought it was normal. When you're 10 years old, you think that whatever way you live is average. My dad owned a bookshop with his brother, and it was a crossroads of New York literary life in the 1960s. There was a big buzz in the air, a movement that would later be called "the counterculture," and I witnessed that happening, but I also had this double life because my family still lived in working-class Brooklyn. I could tell that not everywhere was as vibrant — in terms of art, music and literature — as the Village. But I didn't realize the historical meaning at the time, no.

If you had to describe Bob Dylan's artistic significance to someone who had never heard him — or to someone who had but maybe didn't like the way he sang or didn't like his folk music — what would you say?
The thing about Dylan is that he can write songs that are tender and tough at the same time. He is a man who writes with a mixture of defiance and vulnerability that comes close to explaining what it means to be human. He sings about the human experience. That's why he's a poet.