One of Bob Dylan’s most baffling bafflements, at least at the time, was his shift into writing, performing, and recording gospel songs at the end of the 1970s. Only in recent years have the songs’ full power and glory begun to receive their due, partly in connection with a renewed appreciation of Dylan’s overpowering gospel concert shows. With some video assistance from 1980, here is a bit of reevaluation.
Sean Wilentz is one of the most prominent historians of the United States. He was born in 1951 and raised in New York City. His family owned the famed 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, where as a boy and young teenager he was immersed in the currents of beat literature and folk singing that would profoundly change the nation’s culture — and the world’s. (Allen Ginsberg first met Bob Dylan in his uncle’s apartment above the shop, a fateful encounter in the lives and writing of both artists.) It is out of this formative experience that Wilentz writes about the music and literature of that time and its legacies.
Wilentz’s writings on music have focused on folk traditions and contemporary rock and roll, especially the work of Bob Dylan. His liner notes for Dylan’s album, The Bootleg Series, Volume 6, Bob Dylan Live, 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall were honored with a Grammy nomination and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for musical commentary. He is also the co-editor, with Greil Marcus, of The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad (2004). Since 2001, he has served as historian-in-residence at Dylan’s official Website. In September 2010, Wilentz published Bob Dylan in America.
Wilentz’s historical scholarship has concentrated on the political and social history of the United States from the American Revolution to recent times. His best-known books of history are: Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (1984; reissued with a new preface, 2004), The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, “A Laborer,” 1747-1814 (with Michael Merrill, 1993); The Kingdom of Matthias (with Paul E. Johnson, 1994); The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008).
Sean Wilentz is currently the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979.