Q. & A.: Sean Wilentz on Bob Dylan

Historians in the News

The historian Sean Wilentz, the author of “The Rise of American Democracy” and “The Age of Reagan,” has a long-standing interest in the songs of Bob Dylan, going back to his childhood in Greenwich Village. His father and uncle ran the Eighth Street Bookshop, an important gathering place for the Beats and other downtown literary spirits; it was in his uncle’s apartment, above the store, that Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg. Wilentz has synthesized his memories, musical impressions, and historical analysis in a striking new book entitled “Bob Dylan in America,” which Doubleday will publish next month; newyorker.com runs an excerpt this week. As a sometime Dylan obsessive—in 1999 I wrote a long piece about Dylan, which will reappear in my forthcoming book “Listen to This”—I approached Wilentz with some questions about his latest work.

ALEX ROSS: I was fascinated by your decision to begin your book with a chapter on Aaron Copland. What led you to start there?

SEAN WILENTZ: I wanted to explore Dylan’s roots in the musical world of the Popular Front, but didn’t want to retell the stories about Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I’d written an essay on Copland for a wholly different occasion, and started coming to grips with Copland’s Popular Front affiliations, which had helped spur his elevation of American folk music. I had a hunch that, somewhere, there must be links between Copland and Dylan.

For a while after 9/11, I recalled, Dylan opened many of his shows by playing recorded bits of Copland’s music. Then I ran across an enthusiastic review in the Daily Worker of Copland’s early work, written by Charles Seeger, Pete’s father. The chapter just grew from there.

Readers expecting a standard biography, which this book is not, may anticipate learning about how Copland had some direct and profound influence on Dylan’s early work. They will be disappointed, and the book’s introduction tries to ward off such expectations.

In the Copland chapter, I’m interested in making other kinds of connections, not just between Dylan’s work and an individual or several individuals, but between his work and a larger cultural congeries of the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties. The succeeding chapters take different approaches.

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