Half way through Sean Willentz’s wise and complex, Bob Dylan in America, I thought of Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers. Rodia was an Italian immigrant from Naples who created folk art towers in the Watts area of Los Angles in the 1930’s. The towers are tall iron cones: ornamented with soda bottle glass, tile, shells, and other found fragments. Yesterday I was in the yard, hands deep in tile and concrete; hoping to make an old Mexican fountain echo the feel of the Watts Towers, or at least summon the mosaic work of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. I was thinking of Sean Willentz’s Dylan book, which details how Dylan fashioned his complex song catalogue out of the bits and pieces of American musical history: minstrel shows, vaudeville, blues, jazz, gospel, folk, early rock, sacred harp shape-note singing…inventing, reinventing, borrowing, and stealing, now and then. Building his unique, masterful folk-art towers from poetic fragments. The Watts Towers of Song.
Willentz begins with a link between Dylan and Aaron Copland (composer of the opera Billy the Kid ), then discusses Brecht and Weill, the Beat generation, Blind Willie McTell, Shape Note singing, Bing Crosby, Blonde of Blonde and onward….Willentz doesn’t adopt the usual tact of over-interpreting Dylan. Impossible. He places Dylan’s work into the larger, ever-evolving context of American music. He’s a history professor at Princeton, and the research and footnoted-detail is sometimes tough slogging. But worth the journey. Bring water, wine, and a walking stick. You’ll know more about our musical tradition when you arrive at the end.
In the final chapter Willentz discusses the issue of whether Dylan stole or plagiarized lyrics and melodies throughout the long ride. Willentz alludes to the unspoken rules of the folk process and the working methods of TS Eliot, Woody Guthrie and others. He backs up Dylan. People have been trying to dissect, heave charges, boo, criticize, condemn and lob cheap shots at Dylan and his work since 1962. Current detractors should choke on the toxic fumes of the search engines they’ve employed to prove plagiarism. When I was a kid, the City of L.A. wanted to tear down the Watts Towers as unsafe. They brought in army helicopters to try and lift the towers. The towers wouldn’t move. They stand. So too… Dylan’s towering catalogue.
Today we stare into the musico-cultural abyss of what is now call “singer-songwriting;” or the the catch-all swamp referred to as Americana music. Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and a few others, soar like endangered eagles above the polluted waters. Sean Willentz has fashioned an important book which provides a key to young writers, as well as all of us who might wish to learn what “homework” the Bard, Dylan, might have done as he moved through his changes and absorbed the wonders of our diverse musical heritage.
Ondale! Back to work on my own Watts Towers. Praise the Lord and pass me a shard of glass, a sea shell, a splinter of tile… a broken rhyme.