The Old, Weird America — Greil Marcus on The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes

This month, to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday (which is, um, today), Picador is reissuing Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic under the name The Old, Weird America. Marcus uses Dylan and The Band’s recording sessions at Big Pink in 1967 as the ultimate synthesis of “the old, weird America.” From these legendary sessions Marcus unpacks Moby-Dick and William Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jerry Lee Lewis, Puritans and cowboys, utopias and ranches, Harry Smith and Dock Boggs, the Reverend J.M. Gates and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” murder ballads and the Beats, Clint Eastwood and Frank Hutchison, and more, more, more.

While Bob Dylan and the guys in the Band–Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson–are the protagonists of Marcus’s pop history, Harry Smith is perhaps its signal hero. Marcus finds in Smith’s seminal work Anthology of American Folk Music a history of democracy and America “made by willful, ornery, displaced, unsatisfied, ambitious individuals.” Marcus figures Anthology as the direct antecedent for The Basement Tapes. And yet as he moves backward in time he also moves forward, tracing the spirit of the old, weird America through to Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana.

Marcus’s mission isn’t so much a to tell Dylan’s history (yet again) as it is to contextualize Dylan and The Band’s project against the backdrop of the American folk past. As such, Dylanphiles won’t exactly find a new version here of the narrative that they’re undoubtedly so familiar with (cantankerous Dylan goes electric and “betrays” the folkies). Instead, what we find in The Old, Weird America is a verbal attempt to match the discursive, rambling, reference-hopping spirit of those sessions in ’67, and if Marcus at times rumbles and tumbles all over the place, we can forgive him—his weirdness is merely an attempt to match the verve, audacity, and strangeness of The Basement Tapes.

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