Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides

By Stephen Pate – Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks squared off at a symposium in New York City. It was the Yank versus the Brit – the historian versus the poetry scholar. What they agreed and disagreed upon makes interesting reading. For more about the books and music cited, and Wilentz and Ricks, see Sources and the article End-note.

Next in the series If I Were Christian, I Would Be The Bob Dylan Kind

Bob Dylan – is he an innovator or custodian of history?

Sean Wilentz – Bob Dylan did say that in an interview, by the way, that he owned the 60’s, but he said it was high irony.

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He said to the interviewer, “Do you want to buy them? I’m sick of them.”

In fact, he’s really a product of the 40’s and 50’s, and that has to always be borne in mind, and I suppose with the latest work, which you see a lot in the latest album (Together Through Life) actually, because it’s all songs from sort of 1943 to 1953.

It’s important to remember that, I think, because his relationship to what we think of as the pop music of the 60’s. He’s older than most of these people, and he comes from a different time and place, not just Hibbing and all that, but a different time.

What he’s invented comes in part out of that time, and the things that he experienced as a young man growing up amidst World War II, not that far out of the depression, in a very hard-struck part of the world. That comes across very clearly in some of the early songs, but the sensibility never, never leaves him. It’s something that I think people forget. He’s inventing, in part, out of that.

You always wanted to know something about what we … why we’re doing what we’re doing. I have no idea what we’re doing. I don’t know why you’re doing it. I’ll tell you what I’m doing.

My relationship to Bob Dylan has been on and off, as it were. I grew up in the Village. My dad owned a bookshop, right in the middle of all of that. Bob Dylan used to come in and buy books. I used to sell them to him, because my father believed in child labor, growing up. Actually, that’s a joke, but I would work hard there.  Next…

Sean Wilentz, cont’d – I was surrounded by all that as a kid, and I loved the music, and I was into it very early. In fact, talk about Oedipal problems, my father gave me my first copy of Blonde on Blonde. That’s really sick. Then I forgot about Bob Dylan for a long time, from about 1978 through 1995, when I started to get back into him, and then 1997 when I really did.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship. This has been an on-again, off-again romance. Since then, I’ve been much more involved, thinking about it, and realized how stupid I was.

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz

(In 1995) my father was dying, and I listened to the last cut on World Gone Wrong, and it’s an extraordinary inhabiting of that song, I think, which gave me consolation from a place I’d never expect to find it.

Bob Dylan, consoling? No, but it did, very much so. And then a concert in ’97. A friend brought me to a concert, which was very important, and then in 2001, I started working for them.

My relationship is different from Christopher’s, I think. I don’t analyze art in the same way that a literary critic would. I look at things historically, and I think about them historically.

Has an extremely acute historical consciousness. His songs can make the past sound like the present, and make the present sound like the past, like nobody else’s. The stuff in Chronicles that he discusses about going to the New York Public Library and reading all that microfilm, that’s one of the parts in the book I could believe. I don’t believe all of it, but I can believe that part, because what does he know about the Civil War?

It’s an awareness, it’s an understanding, that I’ve read in no history book, actually. It would be in nobody’s diaries, because it’s from the present. I suppose it’s historical consciousness, that part of what his art is about, has fascinated me anew, and it’s becoming more and more and more a part of his art, as he grows older; or more consciously so, put it that way.

Christopher Ricks – Dylan’s against inventions. Man has invented his doom.

Invented, for Dylan, isn’t a good thing. He’s a discoverer, and that’s a much, much more profound thing to be than an inventor, though we need inventors.

Discover is a word that comes again and again in the songs. Invent, of course, he hates the idea that he re-invents himself.

I’m not re-inventing myself. It’s out there. The scholars say I’m re-inventing.

For me, quite a lot would turn on the difference between those 2 words. It’s true that “invent” just means you come upon it, but that’s not what it has come to mean as the word has developed. I think discovery is what he does.

Terry Kelly for “The Bridge” asked me when I discovered Dylan, which was very sweet. I said, “I didn’t discover him, he discovered me.

This is what he has done for pretty well everybody. He has never met, I think, people in this room, or only some of them who have been lucky enough to meet him, and yet he has discovered you, because he knows the things that occur to you, without knowing you.

Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks

One of the things I love about him, and honor about him, is that he is not afraid of being terrifically like other people. Wanting to be just like them, is not necessarily a bad thing. Everybody’s hung up on their uniqueness.

I don’t mind being a type. I’m a septuagenarian bald Englishman who is trying to curry favor with Americans, especially beautiful young Americans, by pretending to love Bob Dylan. There are hundreds out there. What’s so bad about being a type? Everybody’s a type. If you want to go around all the time being nothing but unique, you’re into terrible trouble.

On the other hand, I have different fingerprints for everybody else, and Dylan, I think is simply wonderful on all those things that have to do with commonality. Commonality is not enough, nor is singularity or individuality. For me, a lot for me would turn simply on the word inventions, because discover, he keeps coming back to in the songs, just as he has.

Of course now, you don’t have to know anything. You don’t have to remember anything. I got on in my profession because I have a good memory for words, though not for numbers. Now all you do is kind of, you just write the thing in and the machine (computer) tells you.

I liked it when I just had to learn it. It’s striking to me that there’s the same number, almost exactly, of matching songs for the word “old” as for the word “new”. That’s the kind of thing which I simply find out by going to a screen, but it is really true. 

Christopher Ricks, cont’d – There are a couple of hundred matching songs for the word “new” and a couple of hundred for the word “old”, and that’s quite right, because innovation needs continually to be arched against a respect for a tradition. No, there are umpteen traditions. Dylan has never respected one tradition only.

One of the great things about him is the plurals. He doesn’t have a voice, he has voices, isn’t that right? He doesn’t have a mood, he has moods. He doesn’t have a conviction, he has a whole body of convictions, and he knows that it’s right for those to change from time to time.

Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks

I agree you have a terrific feeling for the historical context, and one of the things I admire about your writing is that social history is never subordinated to, or subordinating individual histories. History keep switching, doesn’t it? It’s the lives of great men that all remind us that the grave is not our goal.

People get bored of that, and want the lives of ordinary people, but I think you’ve written very well in which the lives of great people and the lives of ordinary people have to be at one. Anyway, that’s my bit for now.

Tomorrow – If I Were Christian, I Would Be The Bob Dylan Kind  Dylan’s Borrowing Habit


iTunes – Bob Dylan

End Note

Sean Wilentz is a noted historian and the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in history and American history in particular.

Christopher Ricks, the former editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse with seven centuries of classic English poetry, wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry – Dylan’s Visions of Sin, one of my favorite books on Bob Dylan.

Ricks is also the editor of the sold out extra-large art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics with variations.

The discussion took place at The Philoctetes Center for the Multi-Disciplinary Study of the Imagination. You can watch the symposium on YouTube although it’s tediously long at 1 hour and 49 minute.  I present here the first of seven articles from the enormous 10,000 words, edited for brevity.

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