Bob Dylan in America is historian Sean Wilentz’s study of how various currents and touchstones of American culture directly and indirectly affected the music of Bob Dylan. Not at all a biography, Wilentz’s book examines critical points in Dylan’s career and explores the American influences on those moments and phases.
Wilentz provides detailed accounts of these Dylan influences, including Aaron Copland, Blind Willie McTell, The Sacred Harp (an early American hymnal), and variations of the folk song “Delia.” The in-depth treatment of these topics is impressive but also occasionally veers far from their relevance to Bob Dylan.
The most satisfying of these explanations involves the poet Alan Ginsberg. Ginsberg and the Beat writers certainly influenced Dylan, but Dylan also influenced them. When Wilentz delves into the origins of the Beat movement with a specific focus on Ginsberg, it’s only a matter of time before Dylan himself enters the narrative. We see that Dylan and Ginsberg had a complex relationship, performing together at various times, blurring the lines of who was influencing whom.
The Dylan emerging from Bob Dylan in America is a constantly evolving artist. The early Dylan is portrayed as fiery and inspired. The 1970s Dylan is a rock star trying to tell musical stories in new ways on stage and on record. The later Dylan comes across as little more than a collage artist, weaving together songs from all of his influences, including his younger self, as his ragged-voiced minstrel show travels the world.
The book’s “coda” deals with Bob Dylan’s 2009 album Christmas in the Heart. While I found this album mostly unlistenable and uninteresting, Wilentz calls it “a red-ribboned gift to the world.” This claim encapsulates Bob Dylan in America’s appeal and shortcomings: While there is always something to be said about everything Dylan does, it takes a dedicated Dylanologist like Wilentz to consider all of it important.