Philip King on Dylan

Wilentz recounts Dylan’s notion that the language of folk songs, an old living vocabulary, was a language “that was tied to the circumstances of blood” and of what happened over 100 years ago at the time of secession from the union.

Dylan absorbed more than a century of songs and the history that informed them: standing in an old listening booth, hearing a disc played once and immediately knowing it. Guthrie, Leadbelly, Blind Willy McTell, Doc Watson, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Bing Cosby, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, Liam Clancy, Thomas Moore and Paul Brady all found homes in his tower of song.

In Chapter 10, “Bob Dylan’s Civil War”, Wilentz writes: “Listening to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, Dylan hears other kinds of songs drenched in history where even in a simple melodic wooing ballad, there would be rebellion waiting around the corner.” Rebellion spoke to him louder than death: “He wanted to change over songs like The Minstrel Boy and Kevin Barry to have them fit an American landscape.”

And so, searching for “some archaic grail to lighten the way for his song writing”, he went uptown to the New York Public Library and read about America in the Civil War era: “Not just what the historians had to say but the sources themselves” – primary sources, the heart of the matter.  (Times) >>>

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