Invisible Republic

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Greil Marcus is a gifted and innovative writer who has almost singlehandedly expanded the practice of pop music criticism into a very ambitious form of cultural criticism. In INVISIBLE REPUBLIC: BOB DYLAN’S BASEMENT TAPES, he turns his attention to the interlude following Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, when he secluded himself in Woodstock, New York, and, in late 1967, informally performed and recorded an enormous array of songs with the musicians soon to be known as The Band. These recordings, which for years circulated only in bootleg form, became known as “The Basement Tapes.” Among other things, they anticipate the surprising new direction Dylan’s music was to take in the 1968 release JOHN WESLEY HARDING, as well as the groundbreaking MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, the first album by The Band, released later that same year.

Marcus locates this work in a tradition mined by Harry Smith’s influential ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC (1952), a major source for the “folk” singers of Dylan’s generation. Smith introduced them to old-time performers like Furry Lewis and Uncle Dave Macon and, through them, opened up a window onto what Marcus labels “the old, weird America” synonymous with the “invisible republic” of his book’s title. By this he refers to a diverse array of eccentrics and visionaries of the American past, including prophetic figures like Mother Ann, founder of the Shakers, and Jonathan Edwards, whose sermons helped to define the mid-eighteenth century “Great Awakening.”

It is not difficult to find similar mysterious spiritual themes in Bob Dylan’s music, and Marcus argues that Dylan stood head and shoulders above others prominent on early 1960’s “folk” circles because he appreciated the baffling, arcane, contradictory aspects of traditional American music, which others were all too willing to reduce to stereotypes of a charmingly quaint premodernism.

Sources for Further Study

ARTforum. XXXV, June 1, 1997, p. 7.

Billboard. CIX, June 7, 1997, p. 79.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 25, 1997, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXV, August 25, 1997, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 4, 1997, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXXIX, June 2, 1997, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 17, 1997, p. 62.

Rolling Stone. October 16, 1997, p. 32.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 18, 1997, p. 12.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. June 3, 1997, p. 10.

Invisible Republic

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Thanks to a friend who bestowed them on him as a gift, Greil Marcus has listened repeatedly to all five compact discs in the bootleg set called The Genuine Basement Tapes, the most complete collection available of the home recordings which the convalescing Bob Dylan made with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm during the late summer of 1967. The official selection issued by Columbia Records in 1975 comprises only two compact discs. Marcus, a cultural critic whose catholic interests only begin to be defined by the suspect phrase “rock music critic,” was launched down some forgotten avenues of American cultural history by his own careful reconsideration of this mysterious phase of Dylan’s notably enigmatic career. Hence the title Invisible Republic for a book that takes Dylan’s casual Woodstock recordings as its starting point.

It is the best book yet from an accomplished writer known for making some unusual connections in his work, none more so than in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), in which members of the Sex Pistols turn up in association with German Dadaists and French Situationists. The author’s considerable critical intelligence and the unorthodox approach he takes to the cultural phenomena that interest him create a memorable study that will reverberate in the consciousness of its readers for a long time to come.

Floods of ink have washed over the theme of Bob Dylan’s controversial abandonment in 1965 of the folk troubadour persona he embodied during the early 1960’s and his then-shocking self- reinvention as a leather-clad rocker cradling a Fender Stratocaster. What separates Marcus from the legion of Dylanophiles who have recounted the offense which “the new Dylan” gave the 1965 Newport Folk Festival organizers when he presented his new sound is his atypical interpretation of the opposition between the first two phases of Dylan’s career, viewed from the perspective of the 1967 “basement” sessions and in light of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). This eclectic collection of traditional songs served to introduce an entire generation, Dylan’s generation, to a previously unacknowledged musical heritage, and Dylan, Marcus argues, shared the viewpoint of its eccentric compiler, Harry Smith.

Smith, bohemian iconoclast and amateur ethnomusicologist, assembled his influential collection without regard to genre, recognizing, among other things, that genre divisions in traditional American music were also profoundly racial divisions. He juxtaposed Delta blues singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson with Appalachian figures such as “Dock” Boggs of West Virginia. While unusual, this in itself would not have been a great obstacle for the movers and shakers of what came to be called the “folk music” movement of the early 1960’s, linked as it was to the Civil Rights movement. Yet, as Marcus sees it, Smith’s real transgression in their eyes was his strong preference for music that had been commercially viable and that had crossed regional boundaries through radio airplay.

To folk “purists” (the people whose sensibilities were most deeply offended by what they took to be Dylan’s betrayal of all that their music stood for), the proper object of folk ethnomusicology was music that embodied the essence of the lived daily experience of its exemplars, who should not, by definition, have been seeking commercial performance status. Marcus lays bare the hypocritical condescension in this attitude, where the only person accorded the title of genuine “folk” musician was one doomed to a life of poverty. It was a form of leftist paternalism, he asserts, even a version of “socialist realism.” By playing “vulgar” rock and roll, Dylan was judged to be entering the crass world of commercial popular music, and for this Pete Seeger and others could not forgive him. Marcus shows that Dylan shared Smith’s sense of the commercial success, however modest, of pre-Depression traditional musicians as a kind of empowerment, as their first chance to address a wider public.

Through Marcus’s account, readers relive the fateful trajectory Dylan followed during 1965 and 1966, recording the landmark Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, touring with the Hawks (later the Band) and other rockers who had to play extra loud to be heard over the chorus of boos that often met them, and then coming to an abrupt halt with Dylan’s motorcycle accident in the autumn of 1966. In the calm period that followed, with Dylan settled into domestic family life and the five members of the Band joining him one by one in the community in and around Woodstock, New York, Dylan blazed new...

(The entire section is 1959 words.)