Exactly one week before Bob Dylan’s 71st birthday, students in AMS 332: Bob Dylan celebrated the end of the semester with a field trip to Greenwich Village. Professor Sean Wilentz led the tour, making stops at the Kettle of Fish bar, Cafe Wha?, and the Washington Square Hotel, among other famous Dylan haunts. The last stop on the tour was the site of the Eighth Street Bookshop, once owned by Wilentz’s father. “I still get the spooks when I come here,” said Wilentz. “New York changes, but it never changes all that much.”
For Wilentz, the class was a return not only to his personal roots but also to the subject of his bestselling book, Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz saw the book as an “exploration,” which renewed his interest in the singer and inspired him to create the seminar through Princeton’s Program in American Studies. The program’s multidisciplinary approach lent itself particularly well to a study of the musical magpie. “It allows people to come together who speak in different idioms,” said Wilentz.
The seminar embraced a variety of genres and periods in Dylan’s career. Each week consisted of extensive listening in addition to biographical, historical, and literary studies. The class “started off with a bang” — the electric controversy of 1965 — then progressed chronologically from Dylan’s formative folk years, through his dabblings in rock, country, gospel, and other styles, to the present. Wilentz made a conscious effort to transcend the conventional image of Dylan as a protest singer — “the young man with the guitar and harmonica singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’” The syllabus encompassed some of Dylan’s more recent work, including tracks from his so-called Christian period in the 1980s, his 2003 film, Masked and Anonymous, and his latest album, Christmas in the Heart.
“I don’t think there is a good Dylan and a bad Dylan or an old Dylan and a young Dylan,” said Wilentz. “He never fails to be interesting.” Asked to name his favorite Dylan song, Wilentz responded, “Maybe he hasn’t written it yet.”
The 14-person seminar drew students from a range of departments, including history, English, and computer science. Students were admitted by a competitive application process.
Wilentz was not surprised by the turnout, acknowledging that his generation “inflicted” Dylan on today’s youth, who “had to come to terms with it or not.” He was however “delighted at how seriously [the students] took the subject” and “came away from the class even more astonished at the breadth of [Dylan’s] output.” He plans to offer the class again next year.
Wilentz’s research on Dylan and the history of American music also has informed his most recent project, a book on Columbia Records (Dylan’s label), due out in October 2012. Though Wilentz has spent the better part of his career writing political history, he is open to engaging different parts of his brain: “I never know quite where my mind is leading me. Maybe that is dangerous – it can get you in trouble, I suppose.” Dylan couldn’t have said it better himself.
Vicky Gan ’13, a student in the Bob Dylan course, is a history major from Baltimore, Md.