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Mainstream to margins: Wilentz tracks political music

By Brian Kirk

Princeton NJ -- Legendary performer Bob Dylan and Princeton University have a history that goes back more than three decades. In 1970, the University presented the musician with an honorary degree during a Commence-ment ceremony drowned out by the din of cicadas that had descended on the campus. Dylan later described the event in his song, "Day of the Locusts."

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz


With the release of Dylan's new two-CD set this spring, that connection with Princeton continues. A 52-page booklet accompanying "Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall -- The Bootleg Series Volume 6" includes a historical and critical essay by Sean Wilentz, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of Princeton's Program in American Studies. Documenting the historic Halloween concert from the vivid memories of attending it as a 13-year-old, Wilentz illustrates the musical and social importance of that night's performance in New York.

"'Live 1964' brings back a Bob Dylan on the cusp of that turmoil," Wilentz writes. "It brings back a time between his scuffling sets at the downtown clubs and his arena-rock tours of the 1970s and after. It brings back a long gone era of intimacy between performer and audience, and the last strains of a self-aware New York bohemia before bohemia became diluted and mass marketed. It brings back a Dylan moment just before something that Pete Hamill (on the liner notes to 'Blood On the Tracks') called 'the plague' infected so many hopes, and destroyed an older America sung of by Guthrie and, in prose, by Jack Kerouac -- and by Dylan as well, who somehow survived. Above all, it brings back a great concert by an artist performing at the peak of his powers one who would climb many more peaks to come."

Wilentz is the author of several books, including "Chants Democratic," as well as the forthcoming "The Rise of American Democracy" and a book about American ballads, co-edited with Greil Marcus. He also writes regularly for The New Republic, The New York Times and other publications. He spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about experiencing Dylan's historic concert as well as the larger topic of the intersection of politics and music in the American tradition.

How did your essay on Dylan's Oct. 31, 1964, concert become included in the notes published with this album?

Bob Dylan's management approached me and asked me to write an essay for them. They knew that I was actually at the concert at the Philharmonic, and that I have written a fair amount about Bob Dylan's work, including pieces for his official Web site. They also wanted something historical to be included with the album -- something to put that moment into context, emotional and spiritual as well as historical context. That night was a turning point in his career.

What is your relationship with Bob Dylan like?

I don't know Bob Dylan -- who really does? but I've been fortunate to be around him for many years. When I was growing up, my father's bookshop was in Greenwich Village and so I have childhood memories of seeing Bob Dylan when he was a very young man and I was a very young kid. I've been around that world for a very long time, which has a lot to do with my interest in music and politics. When he came to Princeton in 2000 [for a concert in Dillon Gymnasium sponsored by the senior class], I did get the chance to see him and rekindle an old acquaintanceship.

What is it about Bob Dylan's music that captures American life and culture so well?

Dylan is a master of the American ballad. Ballads are maybe the major music form in which Americans describe their land and each other.

How would you compare the contemporary scene with the heyday of the ballad of the 1960s? Does the political subtext that was so dominant and present in Dylan's music still exist in today's popular music?

Not to the same extent. Then there was a significant social movement -- most importantly, the civil rights movement and it was the venue in which music played the very important role of keeping up spirits and courage. There is no need for that today, as there is no large, radical social movement. This is reflected in the music. In the 1960s, there was a symbiosis between performers and the audience that was caught up in it. Now, that's just broken. The symbiosis does not exist. But there's still political song being written, lots of it.

Where are we finding most of that political song?

There are singer-songwriters who write about anything from the war in Iraq to the state of the environment. Political song is very much there -- some of it, in fact, very conservative. However, it is more at the margins of American culture than it was in the 1960s, when there were popular artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan embracing political music. Today, the singers are still there, but they simply don't have the presence, except maybe in country and western music, where the themes are often righteously conservative.

Much more present was hip-hop, which had a very hard-edged political message. However, that has been significantly diluted in the last decade. But in the early 1990s, with Public Enemy and similar groups, hip-hop was certainly political. That blatant political agenda may not be present in today's popular music, but there are political commentaries about the world that go on all of the time. It is simply not connected in any way, it's not bouncing off of a social movement. So it's less recognizable, and maybe it is better music as a result. It certainly is more poetic, even if it is more indirect.

Even Dylan grew tired of writing the more direct, finger-pointing songs, and he moved on. In fact, one of the things about this album is that he went on to another phase after this concert. While his writing has never lost its political reference, it has become much more indirect over time. His vision is much more poetic, much more personal.

How do you incorporate your interests in music and politics into your teaching at Princeton?

It is incorporated much more in the Program in American Studies than in my own teaching. It's hard for me to do a lot with music in my own courses because I mainly teach 19th-century history and, apart from covering black minstrelsy, early sentimental song and Stephen Foster, there isn't much.

In the program, I have incorporated music as much as I can. I've always tried to bring musicians to campus in formal and informal ways. This past December I was able to get Danny Kalb, who is a blues musician, and he gave a public concert and performed at the American studies holiday party. Also, helping to bring Bob Dylan to campus [in 2000] was part of that incorporation.

The idea for this inclusion is not simply to put on performances, but to blend performance into the program and into other intellectual activities outside of the sheer pleasure of listening to music. We are not simply trying to use music as a document to illustrate things. That is not interesting to us, although that's part of what we examine. We're actually trying to understand the inner workings of the music itself. We are seeing music not just as an illustration but also as a form, as an art. And we embrace the music in that kind of way so that students come away knowing as much about music as they do about American society and American politics.