Across seven decades, Bob Dylan has been the first singer of American song. As an artist, he has opened up the territory where Tony Bennett’s “Once Upon a Time” can be sung as if it is as much a folk song as his own “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as recited by a fictional Malcolm X. As a writer and performer, he has rewritten the songbook until the traditional and credited sources that might have been printed on the title pages fell away, and it is only a matter of who we are listening to.
Here Greil Marcus tells Dylan’s story through seven of his most transformative songs. Marcus’s point of departure is Dylan’s ability to “see myself in others.” The motor of his music is empathy: as at the beginning of his career in New York he spoke of writing a song about Emmett Till in the first person, nearly sixty years later he circled the globe as John F. Kennedy arguing with infinity as he waited between life and death.
Like Dylan’s songs, this book is a work of implicit patriotism and creative skepticism. It illuminates Dylan’s continuing presence in cultures, especially where such capacious imaginative identification with the other is in short supply. This is not only a deeply felt telling of the life and times of Bob Dylan, but a rich history of American folk songs and the new life they were given as Dylan sat down to write his own.