A centrepiece of Professor Sean Wilentz's book is Bob Dylan's celebrated Halloween Concert of 1964, a time when, as Joan Baez (the evening's "surprise guest") put it in Martin Scorsese's documentary, Dylan "still had his baby fat". As it is, Bob Dylan in America is the first of a roster of books ahead of the singer-songwriter's 70th birthday next May. Dylan is no longer as beautiful as he was in mid-Sixties black-and-white, and his lyrics now rarely astonish: he has said he cannot imagine where those flashing chains of images came from. But he has endured. The renaissance over the past decade (three Grammy Awards, his first number one in 39 years) has proved that Dylan's creative flame still burns, if less brightly now.
Bob Dylan in America began with the idea, prompted by Love and Theft (2001), to consider Dylan in the context of American minstrelsy. While Wilentz didn't abandon that thesis entirely (Dylan himself could be said to have explored it in his much-praised Theme Time Radio Hour), he broadened his canvas to include some unlikely influences: composers Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, part of the Popular Front effort to broaden the appeal of Communism in the 1930s and 1940s as the tide of fascism swept across Europe. A Harvard-educated musicologist named Charles Seeger was part of the same group. His son Pete would later make common cause with Woody Guthrie, Dylan's "last idol", first with the Almanac Singers, later with The Weavers - who took a sanitised version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" to the top of the charts.
Wilentz looks at Dylan's career through a wide-angle lens and presses the super-macro button to focus on only a few particular aspects of it, including the Beats, Blonde on Blonde, Rolling Thunder, and Dylan as historian. Flawed though his study is, he makes some sense of the seeming nonsense of such 1980s and 1990s albums as Good As I Been to You, "a miscellany of old songs", to which Dylan returned after the horror of Under the Red Sky.
He makes a case for it in the Dylan continuum as "an interesting but uneven warm-up", first for World Gone Wrong, an album in which he managed to "reclaim his own art" by reaching back to the blues; and, four years later, for Time Out of Mind, a high point of Dylan's late career which heralded another rebirth. It was the "hushed, breathy" performance of the 1830s hymn "Lone Pilgrim" on World Gone Wrong that led Wilentz, after a decade's gap, to reconnect with Dylan, the song bringing "tears of consolation" as his father lay dying.
Elias Wilentz is a key figure in the book's story, for he edited The Beat Scene and, with his brother, ran the Eighth Street Bookshop where Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg. Thus it was that young Sean grew up amid the socio-political-musical foment of 1960s Greenwich Village, where there was always "music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air".
And thus it was that Wilentz Senior came by tickets for Dylan at Philharmonic Hall. The singer was 23, "the cynosure of hip" and a decade older than our author. Forty years later, and by now a distinguished academic, Wilentz was invited to be "historian-in-residence" at www bobdylan.com, and then to write the liner notes for the release of that 1964 concert.
"Take what you can gather from coincidence," Dylan sang. One of the problems here is that Wilentz gathers too much. In part, it's Dylan's use as a prelude to concerts in 2001 of bleeding chunks of Aaron Copland, including Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man, both of which draw on folk tunes, that launched Wilentz on his quest. Fair enough, but he makes rather too much of Copland's 1934 sojourn near the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota: "By complete coincidence", the very year that Dylan's parents Abe and Beatty Zimmerman set up home "about 150 miles from Copland's vacation cabin".
There is much speculation as to when (or if) Dylan consciously listened to Copland ("virtually inescapable in the 1940s and 1950s") or The Weavers. But in those cosy, post-war years, families gathered round the radio and later the TV. There's no reason to assume the Zimmermans were any different. The point of this book – already made by Theme Time Radio Hour and the 2009 album Christmas in the Heart, both of which pay tribute to a disparate range of musics – is that Dylan has always been "open to artistic inspiration anywhere he found it". He is "not so much a sponge... as an alchemist".
An interesting footnote: in the 2008 Presidential campaign, it was Wilentz, a friend of the Clintons, who accused the Obama campaign of playing the race card. Dylan, always a friend to the blacks, effectively endorsed Obama.
Liz Thomson is preparing a director's cut of 'No Direction Home' by Robert Shelton