Arts Desk

Your Bob Dylan Weekend: Scholars Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz

Bob Dylan-in-america-100810

If you've ever been curious about the America of Bob Dylan—the folk, country, blues, vaudeville, and rock music, the beat poetry, politics, religion, values, art, and Mr. Jones—there are all kinds of fascinating ways to learn about it starting this week.  Unique cultural academic, rock critic, and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus speaks at the Library of Congress tomorrow, and history professor and Dylan scholar Sean Wilentz will be at the Jewish Community Center Saturday night as part of the Jewish Literary Festival. Both have new books out about Dylan, and both events should make for good primers to Dylan and his band's performance at the George Washington University Smith Center on Nov. 13. Bonus: The latest entry in Dylan's Bootleg Series, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964, was recently released.

Tomorrow, Marcus will present his lecture "Sam McGee's Railroad Blues and Other Versions of the Republic." He recently published Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, a collection of the idiosyncratic, Berkeley-based scribe’s magazine and newspaper pieces.  The presentation has been described by the Library of Congress as an excavation “of a few roots of the American Songbook, examining a handful of indelible and idiosyncratic country, religious, or blues songs from the 1920's, and their modern revisions.”

But this being Greil Marcus,  expect the presentation to reflect some of Marcus’s distinctive canon.  In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, using often challenging prose, he drew connections between 1920s banjo players, medieval crazies, Dadaists, Dylan, and the Sex Pistols. Marcus also leaps about and demonstrates his cultural knowledge and Dylan’s in The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. While some find the links he draws a stretch, they’re certainly provocative.

On Saturday, Wilentz, whose father ran a Greenwich Village bookstore in the '50s & '60s where Dylan hung out, will be talking about Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz, who was nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes to Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964—Concert at Philharmonic Hall, was given access to rare material, and the book is being hailed by some for its detailed depiction of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde studio sessions.  The book compares Dylan with Aaron Copland and focuses on Dylan’s interactions with poet Alan Ginsburg, among other aspect’s of Dylan’s life. While professor and author W. Scott Poole has praised Wilentz for writing “the most important book on American history and the most important book on American music in recent memory,” Wilentz is not without his critics. Dylan in America has received some criticism for repetition, and Wilentz  is also controversial for his 2008 writings hailing Hilary Clinton and deriding Barack Obama, and for engaging in verbal battles with other historians. But his presentation should be interesting no matter your take on his approach and views.

Greil Marcus speaks on  Thursday October 21 at 6:15 p.m. at the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building’s Whittall Pavilion, 1st Street SE, between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Streets. Free, no tickets are required.  (202) 707-5503.

Sean Wilentz speaks on Saturday October 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Centre's Ina and Jack Kay Community Hall, 1529 16th Street NW. (202) 518-9400. Tickets: $11, Discounted Members/Seniors/Under 25 $9.

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  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    I've attended talks by both, and both gentlemen are well worth listening to. Wilentz will be here in New York tonight:

    The New-York Historical Society is hosting a session on Bob Dylan in America with Sean Wilentz, Bill Flanagan, Rosanne Cash, on Thursday, October 21, at 6:30, at the Society for Ethical Culture on 64th Street and Central Park West

  • stevekiviat

    There were just 20-30 people in the ornate Library of Congress Whittall Pavilion for Greil Marcus. The event did not receive much publicity and it's not easy for most to get to that part of town by the event's 6:15 Thursday starting time. I don't think it made BYT or Dcist's list of things to do. I don't think Philippa Hughes was there. It was worth it though. Even if you can't stand longtime critic/writer/teacher Marcus's style--connecting 1920s and 30s era sounds with Melville and Bob Dylan and more(no mentions of the Mekons surprisingly for him)--it was interesting to listen to. Marcus proclaimed Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues" (from the Harry Smith collection) "the greatest record ever made." He described musicians Sam McGee, Emory Arthur, and the Green County Singers as creating "their vision of America." He said for one singer that "death is more meaningful than pleasure." He played cuts including Dylan's version of "When First Unto this Country" (from the last disc of a Bootleg series collection) plus someone else's (Emory Arthur? Dock Boggs? my notes aren't clear) version of "Man of Constant Sorrow." He phrased questions like why would the man in "Railroad Blues" ever pause? He gave "poseur" the French pronounciation. He told a story about how everyone on the Titanic was white (decision by the owners) except for a black stowaway who survived (and whom Rabbit Brown sung about). He talked about Skip James, "notes creeping like tadpoles", and acknowledged that Dylan might have heard the New Lost City Ramblers version of "When First..." He mentioned Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed in addition to Moby Dick. He made fun of the '60s folk revival. He spoke for 45 minutes and took questions. You shoulda been there. Expect Saturday's Professor Wilentz presentation at the JCC on Dylan to be more straight-forward, unless he chooses to emphasize his Dylan equals Aaron Copland theory.

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  • Steve Kiviat

    I saw Sean Wilentz talk about his book 'Dylan in America' Saturday night. It started off kinda dull. Plus, unlike Marcus, he did not have an audio portion where you could hear some of the music he was talking about. He said it was an "appreciation" and not a biography. The title is meant to be an allusion to two books: 'Dylan Thomas in America' and 'Alan Ginsburg in America.' He started out just babbling cliches about how Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the last 50 years, and the most important cultural figure. He eventually mentioned and read from his book's comparison of Dylan with Aaron Copland. Copland music for a Billy the Kid movie, Dylan's Billy the Kid references. Frustratingly, the book talk excerpt re Copland and Dylan did not have alot to it. Maybe I need to read the whole portion in the book. Then he jumped to Dylan and the Beats--especially Alan Ginsburg. Not too much insight. He says Dylan was the first and best at putting beat poetry style lyrics to music.
    He then jumped to another book section and noted how Dylan spent time in the NY Public Library reading up on 1840s to 1860s US history, on the library's microfilm machines. He talked about the DA Pennebacker movie and the Rolling Thunder revue tour. He enthusiastically responded to a question about various factors other than age explaining the different sounding vocals Dylan has offered over the years--cigarette smoking, Dylan trying to evoke certain styles, and production techniques. This q and a portion was in some ways more exciting than the reading and earlier introductory portion.