Photo by Daniel Kramer
Here's part 2 of our conversation with Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America. [28:26]
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll excerpt:
... William Zanzinger who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering and his tongue it was snarling
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears ...
That was National Medal of Arts recipient Bob Dylan singing, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in 1975's Rolling Thunder Revue.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
This is the second of a two-part program that examines the music of Bob Dylan who recently celebrated his 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, I turned to cultural historian Sean Wilentz, who is the author of the biography, Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz may be a Princeton historian, but he also has musical chops: he's a received a Deems Taylor Award for musical commentary and a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to Bootleg Series: Vol. 6 Bob Dylan: Live 1964: The Concert at Philharmonic Hall. In Bob Dylan in America, Wilentz places Dylan's music both within the context of its time and within the stream of American culture that reaches back to the 19th century. Wilentz brings a lifetime of passion to his subject coupled with a thorough understanding of Dylan as a cultural figure, deeply connected to a musical past even as he carved out new musical territory. In Part One interview, Sean Wilentz discussed Bob Dylan's influences, early career and significance as an American artist.
We closed Part One with John Wesley Harding, Dylan's first album after his motorcycle accident and one that introduced a new musical direction for him. We pick up my conversation with Sean Wilentz with Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue.
Sean Wilentz: The Rolling Thunder Review was his attempt to put on a circus if you will, something like a circus he told his friend Roger McGuinn as he was getting it all together. It was in 1975 and he had just recorded an extraordinary album Blood on the Tracks which was coming out of the pain of his life at that point. He was to go through a very difficult divorce and lots of other things were at him. He had also studied with a painter named Norman Raeben in New York which helped change some of his ideas about time and perspective and narrative. And so he'd written this album Blood on the Tracks and was very warmly received. People loved it although some people criticized the musicianship on it, but never mind.
Up and hot â "Buckets of Rain"
Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets coming out of my ears
Buckets of moonbeams in my hand
You got all the love honey baby
I can stand.
I been meek
And hard like and oak
I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive friends will disappear
If you want me honey baby
I'll be there.
I like your smile
And your fingertips
I like the way that you move your hips
I like the cool way you look at me
Everything about you is bringing me
Sean Wilentz: It was something of a comeback for a guy who has had a million comebacks it seems, but he was in Greenwich Village and he was recording the songs or writing the songs for a new album to become known as Desire and he started picking up people, old friends, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs for a while, his side kick Bobby Neuwirth, Bob Neuwirth, members of part of the old scene from the pre-motorcycle days but then other new people. People he was picking up literally off the street like the violinist, the fiddler player Scarlet Rivera or another multi-instrumentalist who had been in a band called Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends with in fact a couple of Tony Bennett's kids actually were also in this band. A guy named David Mansfield who was an extraordinary musician. He was pulling them all together and wanted to put on a road show going from small town to small town, you know, on the brink of the American bicentennial in 1976. He was going to go through New England, the cradle of the revolution in 1975, and go to these small towns, small venues and put on a show and it was going to be a show of his new music and some of his old music with the band the old music reconfigured, rethought, re-imagined, but would also include Joan Baez and Ramblin' Jack and people from the old days, and then some of the concert people like Joni Mitchell. So it was a kind of an all-star cast. He himself was playing quite a character. Talk about his wearing a mask. He would appear in white-face which is a kid of reverse of black-face so it was a kind of modern minstrel or the beginnings of what would later be his modern minstrelsy, but also picked up from commedia dell'arte and particularly from a very important French film called Children of Paradise, probably the greatest French film ever made or one of them anyway that had come out in 1945 which he had been watching. He was interested in making a movie of the tour, making a movie out of the tour which he did, a sort of incoherent movie called Renaldo and Clara but there he was appearing in white-face, nobody quite understanding what it was all about. But giving a show, performing, and ending up giving some of the most vehement and extraordinary I think performances of his songs old or new that he would ever give, and performing his heart out as few performers have done.
Up and hot â "Oh Sister"
Oh sister when I come to lie in your arms
You should not treat me like a stranger
Our Father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger.
Jo Reed: One thing I really appreciated about your book, Sean, is that it really made me think about Dylan as a performer and part of that could be where have I been all these years? But I really had to think about him that way and you make sure that we do.
Sean Wilentz: Good.
Jo Reed: You talk about his spontaneity as something he took from the Beats and how he can be difficult to play with because he'll change songs from night to night.
Sean Wilentz: Right, right. It's been said by people who have played with him that you just never know what Bob Dylan is going to do from night to night with any particular song. I think Dylan doesn't put too much store by any one performance. He has said even about his recordings some of which have taken some time but most of which are recorded fairly quickly Blonde On Blonde being an exception, although there, even there about half the album is recorded pretty quickly. It's just to come into the studio, perform the song, get it as good as you can, get it as concise as you can and then leave. Don't worry about it. The song will have its life on record but also have it's life as people sing it and as he sings it. So he has a very what shall we say, un-perfectionist view of his work, well perfectionist but also performative that these are not just works to be read on the page or even listened to on the record; they're meant to be sung and he is meant to sing them and that is part of his art as well.
Jo Reed: And that leads me so beautifully to my next question which is about his voice. It's not a conventional voice. How realistic do you think he is about not just his talent as a writer, but his talent as a performer and also his limitations?
Sean Wilentz: Well it's not a conventional voice if a conventional voice is Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett who have beautiful voices. His voice is not beautiful in that same way although I still think of it as a thing of beauty; it's just not as you say the same as theirs. He may have a more ordinary voice actually a voice that's more common. He sings better than I do but that's another matter. But I think that he understands voice as an instrument as part of what is going into making the sound that is the song. And from the very early days when he was a Woody Guthrie jukebox and kind of affecting an Oklahoma drawl but since then I think that he understands not just how the tambour of his voice can affect what's coming across so a song as recorded like "Lay Lady Lay" you know without that kind of thought of as his Nashville Skyline voice, the loopiness of that song and the Eros of that song wouldn't be quite as effective,
Up and hot â "Lay Lady Lay"
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Whatever colors you have in your mind
I'll show them to you and you'll see them shine
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile ...
Sean Wilentz: But he'll change and he's changed his voice intonation over the years. He's also very, very alert as any great singer is to phrasing, the way that he will emphasize certain words, the way he'll draw out certain phrases and he'll change that as well from time to time. So he understands the voice as essential to his art and although he doesn't have an operatic voice by any means although he sometimes says that he can he sings just as well as Caruso, but I think that for his material he's the right voice. Bob Dylan has been sung by many other people and some of it has been very, very well done: Joan Baez sings some of his songs beautifully, Peter Paul and Mary sang some of his songs beautifully, The Band sings some of his songs beautifully, lots of people sing some of his songs beautifully. But you know in the end it's Bob Dylan's versions of those songs that are the ones that I come back to in any case, and they are the ones that really are that song for me in its many different incarnations as he's changed it over the years.
Jo Reed: How about "Blind Willie McTell"? Is that a song for you?
Sean Wilentz: Oh "Blind Willie McTell" is a song that I wrote a whole chapter on. "Blind Willie McTell" is a song that Dylan wrote in it was supposed to come out on an album released in 1983 called Infidels which was a song after his conversion to Christianity and after the more, most explicit gospel albums that he had come up with in '79 and '80. It was after that although I don't think that the Christian influence ever has ever really left Dylan's work, but he wrote this song about an old blues singer named Blind Willie McTell. It was a song that is in honor in effect of Blind Willie McTell. And McTell had come up in the 1920s and 1930s. He was from Georgia. He played a particular kind of blues, very sweet, generous. He wasn't really a blues singer although he sang the blues. He was more of a songster. He sang all kinds of things. He sang Tin Pan Alley tunes. He would do a lot like Dylan actually. He would steal from other people and make it his own, but he was known as a blues man an during the blues revival that came out of the folk revival of the 1960s Willie McTell's work was rediscovered and re-released and he became known. And songs like "Statesboro Blues" which your listeners might know were later picked up on by Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers and on Live At Fillmore East. I mean "Statesboro Blues" is a sort of standard in the rock canon. But that's Blind Willie McTell's song. So Dylan writes a song about Blind Willie McTell but it's a song that's obviously about a lot more than Blind Willie McTell. In fact he keeps reappearing in the song but only with two lines that in every refrain which is "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." So it's a song about America, a song about being a person who sings these kinds of songs like he does, like Bob Dylan does. But it's a song about the South. It's a song about slavery. It starts back in slavery times or it goes back to slavery times. Talks about chain gangs on the highway. It gives you a very strong visual imagery of the South but then comes back in the end to a Biblical sentiment that the world "throughout all of the world from New Orleans all the way to Jerusalem, there's nothing but power and greed and corruptible seed." That's all that seems to be there. But in the end there is this kind of grace note that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. That there is a measure of beauty, maybe even a measure of hope in the world that is Blind Willie McTell standing in for lots of other things. But "Blind Willie McTell" is there and at the very end of the song he's staring out the window of a hotel. He the singer, it's a hotel. It's not altogether clear what it is although I'm more and more convinced that it's a well-known rock singer's hotel in London and he's looking out the window there and just he himself as an artist looking out and just thinking how beautiful Blind Willie McTell did it. And identifying with him but also trying to understand the distance between him and McTell, the differences between him and McTell
Up and hot â "Blind Willie McTell"
See them big plantations burningâ¨
Hear the cracking of the whipsâ¨
Smell that sweet magnolia bloomingâ¨
See the ghosts of slavery shipsâ¨I can hear them tribes a-moaningâ¨
Hear that undertaker's bellâ¨
Nobody can sing the bluesâ¨
Like Blind Willie McTell
There's a woman by the riverâ¨
With some fine young handsome manâ¨
He's dressed up like a squireâ¨
Bootlegged whiskey in his handâ¨
There's a chain gang on the highwayâ¨
I can hear them rebels yellâ¨
And I know no one can sing the bluesâ¨
Sean Wilentz: So it's a beautiful contemplation about a lot of different things. It never ended up on the album Infidels. It was one of the Dylan has done this a fair amount leaving off the best songs and maybe releasing them later. But there is a version, he was trying to find the song again. He had lost the sound of it, so he sat down with Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits who was one of the musicians on the record and they used to do a run through of it with Knopfler on guitar and Dylan on piano and just to give Dylan back his song as a kind of demo almost. And it wasn't good enough for Dylan but that version of it is just exquisite. I mean in terms of the sound of it as well as the song itself. It was a beautiful rendition of it, the one that I think will last the longest and the one that I describe in part in that chapter.
Jo Reed: Oddly enough Dylan released Love and Theft on September 11, 2001.
Sean Wilentz: Yeah crazy, huh? Spooky, weird.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Sean Wilentz: Well a coincidence but all the stranger, it's funny, I was writing a piece that was going to be a sort of liner notes piece that was going go be put on the web on bobdylan.com on his official website. They had asked me to do this and just when I got the word to go down and watch TV because something horrendous had happened. I sort of said "Hold on, hold on" as I was putting these liner notes onto the web. It was very weird and it was for Love and Theft and there are songs on Love and Theft that seem almost prescient, you know a song like "High Water (For Charley Patton)" which described "coffins falling into the street like balloons made out of lead."
Up and hot - "High Water (For Charley Patton)"
High water risin' - risin' night and dayâ¨
All the gold and silver are bein' stolen awayâ¨
Big Joe Turner lookin' east and westâ¨From the dark room of his mindâ¨
He made it to Kansas Cityâ¨Twelfth Street and Vineâ¨
Nothin' standing thereâ¨High water everywhere
High water risin', the shacks are slidin' downâ¨
Folks lose their possessionsâfolks are leaving townâ¨
Bertha Mason shook itâbroke itâ¨Then she hung it on a wallâ¨
Says,"You're dancin' with whom they tell you toâ¨Or you don't dance at all"â¨
It's tough out thereâ¨High water everywhere ...
Sean Wilentz: This is being released on September 11, 2001. Coincidence sure but a song of disaster, songs of disaster, songs of and not just that but certainly them there. I couldn't listen to it for two weeks after September 11th. I just couldn't listen to it.
Jo Reed: It's an interesting title, Love and Theft. You say Dylan stole what he loved and loved what he stole.
Sean Wilentz: Right, right well he took that title which he put it in quotation marks. It's not just Love and Theft, it's quote "Love and Theft" unquote from a book about black-face minstrelsy. I mean he's never disowned having done so. He's never said he did but I'm pretty sure he did by a critic, academic critic named Eric Lott about black-face minstrelsy which was talking about how minstrelsy although a form of obvious racial condescension to say the least, not to say raw racism, that came out of the 1830s and 1840s in northern cities, was also an act of love and of envy for the music, for the what freedom that minstrelsy evoked. You know bluenoses didn't like minstrelsy. It was sort of like rock-n-roll in some ways. It was a combination of black and white music that was very different and offended a lot of people but really came alive at a particular time and it involved white performers blacking their faces with cork, burnt cork and appearing as if they were in this sort of grotesque version of what black people were like, but then performing songs that were really quite astonishingly beautiful very often and by the time Stephen Foster the great American composer is writing for the minstrel stage, some of them are going to become classics in American culture. So Dylan in effect is a minstrel in this record and I think that's one of the reasons why he used that title. Not a black-face minstrel. He'd already been a white-face minstrel but a person who took music, not just the music of African Americans or of slaves or even of the blues and later black music, but from all around American culture, all around American song. He would later be experimenting with Bing Crosby's songs and others, to try and do what he'd always done which is taking these, being this alchemist, taking these other things and making them something new, but I think in a more comprehensive or conscientious or compact kind of way. Really being quite direct about it, creating something new out of something old, creating something of his own out of other people's things, creating a style if you will, a variation on his style that I did call "modern minstrelsy. You could see it taking shape as early as the mid 1990s and then in the 1997 album Time Out of Mind. But it is became clear absolutely clear on Love and Theft which I do think is one of Dylan's great albums and has remained very much part of his songwriting since.
Jo Reed: Well one thing he certainly has made his own is his radio show because if anybody has ever heard it on Sirius XM "Theme Time Radio Hour" I think it's fair to say you've never heard anything like it.
Sean Wilentz: Yeah I mean and props to XM, Sirius XM radio for having done all of that because it allowed Bob Dylan to innovate in a whole different way. Dylan knows every inch of American music, popular music anyway, and a good deal about classical music and he got the idea of doing a radio show which would be in part which in part would allow him to play music that people didn't hear very much, music that isn't normally played on the radio: blues music, tin pan alley music, all sorts of things and to group them thematically so you have a show on baseball, or a show on drinking or what have you. But at the same time create this fantasy world very much sounding as if it comes out of a noirish 1940s or 1950s. He makes up a place where this is being broadcast from, "the historic Abernathy Building" near Sampson's Diner and all the rest of it. And on the show he will break up the songs, he'll actually give you lectures about the songs, mini lectures to inform you so he's being an archivist, he's being a teacher in some ways. But then they'll be interrupted with you know, quiz, startling facts like what is the windiest city in America? Right? And you might think that it's Chicago because is the "Windy City". It turns out there at least three cities that are windier and he gives you the names: Sioux City is one of them. He'll give you the best recipe for making a mint julep. He will give you odd history facts about the youngest soldier to die during the Civil War. He's always got history in there. It's a bit like reading an old family newspaper, maybe like reading Grit or something from the old days, that same kind of period in which you're being given all kinds of useful useless information at random although he would always have them tied to the themes of the show. So it was an extraordinary three seasons of radio in which you learned a lot about music, in which Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan was never out of character. I mean you always knew he was he. He'd be referring to friends and so forth and every once in a while his own experiences, but he was Bob Dylan as DJ rather than Bob Dylan as the masked minstrel. And boy did he pull it off well I thought. I have recordings of all of those in one place in my study back in Princeton, New Jersey, and they are precious to me. I love them. I listen to them all the time.
Jo Reed: Bob Dylan's been making music for over 50 years. He's still doing at least 100 dates a year?
Sean Wilentz: Yeah about 100 dates a year.
Jo Reed: What do you think makes Dylan endure?
Sean Wilentz: Well I think that he's grown, he's grown up as it were or he hasn't- people don't go to him to see an oldies show. Some critics, some writers try to place him in aspic so they imagine Bob Dylan only the Bob Dylan of the 1960s or maybe the Bob Dylan of the Christian period or whatever. But Bob Dylan has evolved and grown and his writing over the last 10, 15 years has grown with it. It's the writing of an older man writing with that peculiar mixture of defiance and vulnerability that marked his early work but are songs that he could never have written when he was 20 years old. He did have the ability to sound like an old man when he was young, but a song like "Not Dark Yet" or even "Summer Days" or any of the things on Love and Theft which talk about what it's like to be an older man who still has something going on, but is not what he was. This is something that people want to hear, want to listen to. He's still writing beautiful songs, and he's still performing them in ways that are quirky, ways that are odd that are not to everybody's taste, that are better some nights than others but are certainly highly theatrical and certainly effective. So he's going to stay out on the road as long as there's a road for him to stay on.
Up and underâ "Summer Days"
That was Sean Wilentz ; he's the author of the biography, Bob Dylan in America.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpts from today's songs were all written and performed by Bob Dylan, and used courtesy of SONY Music Entertainment. Each song used by permission of Jeff Rosen and Special Rider Music.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes Uâjust click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, we look at YoungBlood, the theater group for playwrights under 30. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Back up and hot ... "Summer Days" ...
Where do you come from? Where do you go?â¨Sorry that's nothin' you would need to knowâ¨Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it's stuckâ¨Why don't you break my heart one more time just for good luck
I got eight carburetors, boys I'm using 'em allâ¨Well, I got eight carburetors and boys, I'm using 'em allâ¨I'm short on gas, my motor's starting to stall
My dogs are barking, there must be someone aroundâ¨My dogs are barking, there must be someone aroundâ¨I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down
You got something to say, speak or hold your peaceâ¨Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peaceâ¨If it's information you want you can go get it from the police ...