Culture  /  Book Review

Bob Dylan, Historian

In the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present.

... of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

... of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.

“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).

A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”

Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.

Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in ...