Sean Wilentz on how Bob Dylan overcomes the illusions of time:
The question of the ballads, though, and why Dylan was drawn to them so early on, is interesting. In Bob Dylan in America I recount a scene where he’s at the White Horse Tavern with Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, and they’re singing these lusty songs of Irish rebellion. Dylan is knocked out by them, and he wants to try and write that kind of song, but write it in a way that’s relevant to an American experience. He describes this nicely in his memoir, Chronicles. He decides to go up to the New York Public Library and actually read microfilm, which in those days is what historians did; now we do it all on computers. But he actually did historical research, reading old newspapers from the 1840s and 1850s. There, he said, he found the template for everything he would write. It came out of the history of the United States as it was entering into an apocalyptic war that would eventually rewrite the Constitution and redeem America’s original sin—or at least start the redemption of America’s original sin. That is a historical moment that, as he said, became the template for everything that he would write after that.Of course, he’s writing about a great deal more than that. But he writes at the same time (remember this is in the early ’60s) about how the distinctions between the past and the present seem to collapse. He would be walking down the street, and other kinds of ghosts, real ghosts, the ghosts of Greenwich Village, would be there: Edgar Allan Poe would be there, Walt Whitman. Then he would be hearing a song about the death of James Garfield, and it would seem as if it were a contemporary event. In other words, he lived in a zone in which he realized that this was not so far back—no, he realized, this is very much alive; it’s very much here.
One of the marks of Dylan’s genius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He can make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. In doing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan also does something that historians can’t do, which is to actually commingle the past and the present in ways that are astonishing.