Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, is also Princeton’s resident Dylanologist. His book Bob Dylan in America was published in 2010 and he serves as the historian-in-residence for Bob Dylan’s official website, bobdylan.com. A few days after the Swedish Academy announced Mr. Dylan as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016, Managing Editor Alex Costin spoke to Professor Wilentz about what the award might mean for listeners, literature, and Dylan himself.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Alex Costin: I want to start with your relationship with Dylan the artist: when you began as a listener, how you balance the writing with your academic work. Obviously, we’re sitting in the History department. What’s the story there?
Sean Wilentz: I think I first heard Bob Dylan in 1963, on a record. I first attended a concert in 1964, when I was all of thirteen years old. My dad ran a bookshop in Greenwich Village with his brother that was at the center of the literary downtown world, not that far from where the folk revival was happening, and so I grew up in that world. Bob Dylan has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, even before I was a teenager.
[The] Freewheelin’ [Bob Dylan] was the first Bob Dylan album I ever heard. I remember I was at a church group. There was a girl. It was a very sophisticated crew, and she was a very sophisticated girl. She brought the album in as if it was the true scripture, and I thought the cover was unbelievable. It’s 1963, I’m eleven, my hormones are just ready to pop, and the sight of Bob and Suze [Rotolo] was extraordinary to me. But then the music got me, too. I’ve been listening to him since then.
AC: When did you start writing about him?
SW: In 1997 I went to a concert in Virginia. I’d had my ups and downs with Dylan, and with rock music, with music generally, because one does. At this concert, someone slipped me a cassette of the unmixed Time Out of Mind songs. I thought they were extraordinary songs, as did the person I was with. Later that year, Greil Marcus’ book on the Basement Tapes was coming out. I wrote for a political magazine called Dissent — I wrote for them a fair amount in those days — and I thought I’d put together Greil’s book with the concert and write about what Dylan meant to me, now that I was in my late 40s, and he was 57. I liked the Marcus book a lot. I didn’t know Greil at that point; we later became very good friends.
Then, in the summer of 2001, I get this phone call from someone who said he was working for Dylan’s website. Someone must have read that piece somewhere along the line, because why else would they be calling me? They wanted me to write liner notes for “Love and Theft”, to appear online. They weren’t going to have them in the record. It was a piece called American Recordings and Modern Minstrelsy, or something like that. The album came out on September 11, 2001. I was there, literally, that morning, putting in the last changes to my notes.
AC: In Princeton or the city?
SW: In Princeton. And it all happened. After that, I wrote a fair amount for that old site, and it became this wonderful set of friendships. It was an exciting time to be around Dylan. But at some point, I had to stop writing about him because I thought I was too close to the whole scene. I couldn’t write about it the way I wanted to.
A few years later I finished a book about American politics, and I realized I had all this stuff I’d written about him. It meant a lot to me, and there was a memoir-ish aspect to it, too. And there were things about his work that I really wanted to find out more about. So I used that as an occasion to write Bob Dylan in America.
AC: The Swedish Academy wrote that Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song Tradition.” Could you unpack that?
SW: Bob Dylan is a lyric poet, and a lyric poet writes poetry that is meant to be set to music. Sometimes we don’t have the music, like Homer, and we sometimes do, like some of the Robert Burns poems. Wordsworth and Coleridge did a book of lyrical ballads in 1798. But Dylan is also a songwriter; he writes the music as well. I think the two very much go together. He has taken this venerable form and raised it to a level that’s just extraordinary. And that’s a poetic feat. He also wrote, as it happens, one of the most interesting memoirs in American literature in the last fifty years, with Chronicles. That’s part of, but stands distinct from, his lyrical work.
AC: What about the more traditional literature: Tarantula, for instance, which I have not read, but even little things like Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, which I have. Are those on the periphery of his artistic achievement, like the films?
SW: It’s all of a piece: the songs, the films, the paintings. He’s a multi-talented artist. Tarantula was a strange project. In some ways, “Like a Rolling Stone” comes out of that. That was the period he was doing a lot of almost automatic writing. You saw it in the programs for his concerts. He would do “Advice for Geraldine on her Miscellaneous Birthday,” the poem, or “For Dave Glover,” which appears in the Newport Folk Festival program in 1964. He was writing endlessly in those days. Some of them were meant to be sung, some of them were not. He writes stuff down a couple of days after the Kennedy assassination, some of which ends up in “Chimes of Freedom,” which comes out the following year. But I think the core of what the Swedish Academy is talking about are the songs — maybe Chronicles as well. I’m not so sure they’re thinking about “Advice for Geraldine on her Miscellaneous Birthday.”
AC: Do you think there was a specific reference point for the Academy? The first thing you think about with Dylan, at least in popular culture, is the folk singer. You think of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Is there room also for the innovations: the trio of rock albums in 1965-1966, going electric? Is that also part of the American folk tradition?
SW: There’s a story where Bob Dylan was in a club in New York and he saw Thelonious Monk on the piano. Monk looks up, and he says, “what are you doing here?” And Dylan says, “I play folk music down the block, down the street.” To which Monk is supposed to have replied, “we all play folk music.”
AC: Basically it’s everything.
SW: Basically it’s everything. It’s everything in that American form. You can be coy around that. Certainly there are differences between what Thelonious Monk was doing in 1962, 1963, and what Bob Dylan was doing. But the point is that all art involves a certain degree of absorption and alchemy. No artist comes full blown out of the head of Zeus. There’s no tabula rasa. It’s what they do with those materials. The fact that Dylan would lift a line out of Ovid, or lift a line out of Henry Timrod, a Confederate poet — it’s interesting, but then he’ll do something with it. That’s not plagiarism, as some people claim. That’s art.
AC: I believe that’s how he’s responded to the plagiarism claims. He says, “where else am I going to draw from?”
SW: He’s right. At least he’s honest about it. On “Love and Theft” it was obvious what he was doing. In fact, he took the title of “Love and Theft” from a book by a guy named Eric Lott, and he put it in quotation marks. I’ll ask people: now you know this line came from Mark Twain. Does it affect your appreciation of the song? You may like it, you may not like it, but does it affect it one way or the other that you know this? It doesn’t compromise his creativity one bit. In some ways it enhances it. He’s mixing high and low. You’ll get a very high lyric, and then it’s turned around in a way that makes it less than high.
AC: I was reading a Robert Christgau article where he writes that the cardinal sin of some Dylanologists is the tendency to focus too much on the lyrics and not enough on the music. Do you think the award validates that tendency?
SW: Well, the quotation does talk about song. Songs are about music; they’re not awarding it for his gift in music, particularly. But there are no lyrics without the song. He says this in an interview in 1965, in San Francisco, where they ask him, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a poet or a songwriter?” And he said, “I think of myself as a song and dance man.” That’s Dylan being cagey and coy, but it’s also very true. I think when most people hear a Dylan line, the music is in their head, too. “But to live outside the law you must be honest” — you can hear that. You’re not just saying the words. “How many roads must a man walk down” — you’re hearing the music. He’s doing literature in a different way. But it’s still literature.
AC: Springsteen talked about the rimshot on “Like a Rolling Stone” that, as he put it, kicked opened the door to your mind.
SW: Right, right.
AC: But that moment is pure music.
SW: That moment is a shock. But it’s followed by, “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine.” You hear that voice. That rimshot appears in countless songs. It’s what going to happen afterwards.
AC: What are the songs that you return to?
SW: Dylan’s work is a universe. You’re going to find songs of bitterness, songs of transcendence. You’re going to find political songs, some of which I like, some of which I don’t. The song “Every Grain of Sand” is very meaningful to me now. No one, no one modern anyway, and certainly no lyricist has written verse about struggle and redemption any better than he does in that song. “Highway 61 Revisited” never fades for me. There’s myth, there’s history, the Bible, there’s current events, there’s movies. There’s a whole lot of stuff, but it’s just a really good rock and roll song. Lots of Blonde on Blonde is in my head all the time. Of the recent stuff, I’ve been listening to Tempest. “Long and Wasted Years” is an unbelievable song. It’s a song of crushed love and of endings. It’s about a dead marriage and recognizing the deadness of the marriage. Dylan’s an older person, so he’s writing older people songs now. That’s a powerful one.
AC: In an interview with NPR, you were asked about other songwriters potentially getting this award now.
SW: What I was trying to say is that it might open up recognition to other songwriters. Rosanne Cash said the same thing, that songwriters deserve much more respect as writers. I think I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He began as a poet, and then he realized he could put it to music and it would be more powerful. If Dylan’s getting this award, it will give more respect to the likes of Cohen.
There’s an argument today between high and low. There are people who want to see everything as literature: a commercial, a jingle. That’s just nonsense. There are people who think Bob Dylan belongs in that category. It’s a snobbism on the one hand, and pop culture on the other. The snobs can’t admit that there’s anything other than trash; and pop culture can’t see anything other than that everything is literature.
AC: You also get the sense that these arguments are somewhat political. People are going to say, “Well, my favorite author didn’t get it. Philip Roth is now never going to win. They’re not going to give it to another American Jewish man in his 70s or 80s.”
SW: I love Philip Roth’s work. If there’s any way in which I’m unhappy about what happened, it’s that it probably means that Philip won’t get it. He’s at least as great a literary genius as Bob Dylan. But Philip Roth’s achievement will outlast these silly awards. Nobody reads Winston Churchill’s histories. Maybe people do, but I don’t think they’re going to stand the test of time. American Pastoral and The Human Stain, Philip’s work generally, is going to last forever.
AC: How do you think Dylan responded to all of this?
SW: I truly have no idea. Dylan has a very wary relationship to this kind of authority. He doesn’t like to give away too much if he doesn’t have to. Unfortunately, the speech I would have imagined is a speech he gave already, at the MusiCares honoring of him back a few months ago. That’s an extraordinary speech about his career and where he’s been. Having done that, it must be difficult to think about something new to write. He certainly wasn’t expecting this, or I don’t imagine he was.