Dylan Revisited

Esteemed history scholar and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz tackles a different subject in his new book—legendary musician Bob Dylan.

Princeton prof Sean Wilentz and his meditation on the legacy of the lanky bard.
Photo by Daniel Kramer.

He’s a historian, a chronicler of U.S. presidents, and a longtime Princeton University professor. So what’s a scholar like Sean Wilentz doing writing a book about Bob Dylan?

Just consider it another side of the Dylan enigma.

Wilentz is best known for his books on political history, including The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006, and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. For his new tome, Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday Books; $28.95), Wilentz switches gears to focus on Dylan’s artistic achievements and what he describes as Dylan’s “connections to enduring currents in history and culture.”
The book hopscotches across the decades and centuries, shedding light on subjects that influenced Dylan, from pre-Civil War gospel music and the roots of classic American ballads to the music of composer Aaron Copland and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a New Jersey native. “It’s of a piece with my earlier books,” says the 59-year-old Princeton Borough resident.

Dylan was an early influence on Wilentz, who first saw him in concert at age 13 and fondly recalls playing Dylan’s songs as a fledgling teenage guitarist.

“This was a project that developed gradually,” says Wilentz, who has served as historian-in-residence for the singer/songwriter’s website (bobdylan.com) for the past decade. In 2004, he received a Grammy nomination for best album notes for his essay included with The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall.

“A lot has been written about Dylan’s mid-1960s period…but my book has more recent material,” Wilentz says. “I wanted to fill in the gaps.”

Those gaps include Dylan’s connections to the Beat Generation, which also connects with Wilentz’s own history. His family ran the 8th Street Bookshop, a Greenwich Village gathering place for writers and musicians in the 1950s and ’60s. “Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg in my uncle’s apartment above the bookshop,” he writes.

The book also features some of Wilentz’s writings for the Dylan website. His association with the site began after Wilentz was asked by Dylan’s management to write an essay on the Love and Theft CD in 2001. One piece of history unknown to Wilentz, who has taught at Princeton since 1979, is how he landed the web assignment. “I never asked why,” he admits. “I like to keep it a mystery."

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