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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.