Nathaniel Philbrick: How Dylan is a lot like Plymouth Rock





[Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War” and “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”]

LAST week, I went to see Bob Dylan at the Nassau Coliseum. It turned out to be a terrific rock ’n’ roll show. I must admit, however, to being somewhat distracted by how Mr. Dylan and his band were dressed. They wore hats and rather elegant suits, and it was in the midst of “Like a Rolling Stone,” as Dylan stood before the keyboard howling out the refrain, that I had what I’ll call a Thanksgiving epiphany.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent the past four years researching the history of Plymouth Colony, but at that moment Mr. Dylan and his band reminded me of the Pilgrims. Not the actual Pilgrims, but the cardboard caricatures we come to know in elementary school, dressed in dark suits, with buckles on their hats and shoes. It was then that I remembered that almost precisely 31 years before, in 1975, Bob Dylan launched his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue in, of all places, Plymouth, Mass.

No one living has a better appreciation for the sneaky and unnerving power of American myth than Bob Dylan. In the fall of 1975, the United States was gripped by what the playwright Sam Shepard, who had been hired to work on a film about the tour, called “Bicentennial madness.” With 1976 fast approaching, America was obsessed as never before with its origins, and as Mr. Dylan knew perfectly well, there was no better place to launch his tour than the mythic landing ground of the Pilgrims.

Mr. Shepard did not end up contributing much to the film, but he did publish a log chronicling the tour’s first six weeks. Included in the book is a bizarre photo showing Mr. Dylan and several fellow musicians peering over the side of the Mayflower II, a reproduction of a 17th-century vessel berthed at Plimoth Plantation. A stiff breeze is blowing, and two of the party are desperately hanging on to the brims of their cowboy hats as the front man of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, speaks on a huge, ’70s-style portable phone.

But perhaps the weirdest and wackiest portion of Mr. Shepard’s log describes how Mr. Dylan and his pals recreated the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. As the poet Allen Ginsberg sat beside the iron fence that surrounds the rock, chanting and chiming his set of Tibetan bells, Mr. Dylan haphazardly piloted a dinghy to the Plymouth shore.

Last week at the Nassau Coliseum it occurred to me that Bob Dylan is a lot like Plymouth Rock. Just as he emerged full-blown onto the New York folk scene of the 1960s, claiming a shadowy and, it turned out, apocryphal past, so did Plymouth Rock suddenly come to the attention of the American people in a manner that smacks of dubious self-invention.
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