Reflecting On An American Master

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

‘I’m kind of lost for words because I can’t think too strate.”This inscription — inside Judy Jane Setterstrom’s copy of the Hibbing High School yearbook — is the first item in Bob Dylan’s own voice that the viewer encounters in “Bob Dylan’s American Journey: 1956–1966,”a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum. It could be a lyric from a Dylan song — the false inarticulateness, the roll of the rhythm, the beat-style affect of the misspelling — especially because it’s followed by a long tumble of words that fills most of the page before concluding with Bobby Zimmerman’s crabbed signature.

The Bob Dylan creation myth is familiar by now, and “American Journey” has a tough job following both Dylan’s own riveting, impressionistic “Chronicles, Volume One” memoir and Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary “No Direction Home.” The later covered territory virtually identical to this collection — Dylan’s early life, from his high school years in the mining town of Hibbing to the stillmysterious motorcycle accident outside of Woodstock that finally slowed down his runaway carnival ride to the pulsing center of global youth culture. “American Journey” — which was organized by Seattle’s Experience Music Project, where it opened in late 2004 — can’t match those two sources for immediacy. Instead, it offers a chance for reflection and the opportunity to draw your own conclusions.

The exhibit doesn’t challenge the outlines of the story as laid down by those accounts. Dylan is described as “a small-town boy with a wandering soul,” a product of his times, but beholden to no one. Through photographs, lyric sheets, and various memorabilia, “American Journey” illustrates the context of Dylan’s rise to glory — the folk revival, the civil rights movement, the Beatles.


And of course, all of these elements went into the formation of the folkrock-country-blues-punk-poet who changed everything about popular music — and who, we see here, was writing such rhymes as, “There is a boy in school/Who don’t live by no rule,” at the age of 15, in the heart of the Eisenhower era.The speed of the transformation is astonishing; a mere four years separates the chubby-cheeked rookie in a tiny Village folk club from the avatar of cool, Fender Stratocaster in hand, preparing for battle in stadiums around the world.

In the end, though, something remains elusive in each piece of Dylan’s multimedia attempts to secure his legacy while he’s still around to do it. No matter how hard he tries to convince us otherwise, he was more than just a lucky accident of timing, more than the sum of his influences. As singer Liam Clancy put it in “No Direction Home,” everyone was thinking the same things as Dylan at the time, but the Hibbing High alum was the only one to come out and say them.

Predictably, “American Journey” is most compelling when Dylan’s music occupies the spotlight. A listening station plays excerpts from his 1961 New York City concert debut at a nearempty Carnegie Recital Hall, which has never been released or broadcast; he sounds shockingly confident, even cocky. Other booths allow visitors to explore all of his albums of this period, juxtaposed with outtakes, songs he used for source material, and cover versions by other artists. Rare performance footage from the seldomscreened documentary “Eat the Document” is stunning — and extra credit for the wall card stating that the singer’s own edit of this material “reveal(s) Dylan to be a filmmaker in step with (if not in a league with) great 1960s auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini.”


Many of the artifacts — the tambourine that allegedly inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the original 35 mm reel of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Don’t Look Back” — are appropriate, but of limited interest.There is surprising information, though, in the numerous original manuscripts of Dylan’s lyrics, many of them part of the Morgan’s own collection. The earlier songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” are neatly written, with precise modifications. The final lyrics included — a sheet with lines from three songs on “Blonde on Blonde” — have words typed, scrawled, written upside-down and sideways. Dylan’s frazzled energy is palpable, and it’s clear why this earth-shattering pace couldn’t be sustained much longer.

Until January 6 (225 Madison Ave., between 36th and 37th streets 212-685-0008).

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use