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.