Monday, April 04, 2011

Book Review - The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein

  1. The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait
  2. Daniel Mark Epstein
  3. On Sale: May 3rd, 2011
  4. Trade Paperback
  5. Amazon Vine Program ARC – Uncorrected Proof

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You might ask why we need another biography of one of the most iconic songwriters and lyricists of our time. And you’d be within your right to ask it. After all, there are currently dozens of well-written books already published about (some even by) Bob Dylan. Here’s the short answer as to why I feel this one is necessary - should, in fact, be near the top of the list. Simply put, I found The Ballad of Bob Dylan (A Portrait) unlike most personal accounts of Dylan’s life because it is written not by a commentator per se but by an obvious fan of both Dylan and the folk genre in general. Whereas a biographer researches and collects the most important facts of a subject’s life and delivers what he’s found Mr. Epstein takes that concept twenty steps further. He disseminates four important concerts and reports back to us as if he were Elizabeth Barrett Browning writing, “… let me count the ways…” He takes us back stage behind the scenes and revisits the honky-tonks and dives of the 60’s and 70’s forging a nostalgia that even the youngest reader will appreciate. He interviews many of the most influential stars that have ever practiced the art of folk music and writes with such intuitive attention to detail that you can feel the historic longing of those he’s consulted. Most importantly, Daniel Mark Epstein knows and loves his subject matter.

This book is divided by four significant concerts from various stages of Dylan’s career spanning more than forty-five years - all of which Epstein attended. The first, held at the small venue of the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. on December 14th, 1963 was Epstein’s first Dylan concert. He was thirteen years old. The second, Dylan’s (with The Band) Madison Square Garden appearance on January 31st, 1974, was, by all accounts, a cultural phenomenon. In some cases the U.S. Post Office had to set up extra mailboxes for ticket orders in many major cities. Over five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available over the course of the tour, making them the most in-demand ticket in the history of rock music. The third concert, part of “The Never- Ending Tour,” was held at the Tanglewood Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts on August 4th, 1997 with special guest Ani DiFranco. The fourth concert was held at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland on July 24th, 2009. Special guest stars were Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp. Through these rare live experiences the author delivers a song by song and decade to decade analysis of Dylan’s live shows and on-stage behavior. Epstein’s familiarity with Bob Dylan, the music, the lyrics, and the core personalities who performed them is glaringly evident. This author is no poser. Epstein really knows his folk history!

Along with the concert attendance and resulting personal notes the biography is built on comprehensive examination of the roots of folk music and its lyrics, a lifelong study of the subject, and personal interviews with a wide range of legendary folk notables including: Eric Andersen (folk celebrity and Dylan contemporary), Tom Paxton (legendary folk singer/songwriter), Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (noted American folk singer), Pete Seeger (iconic folk musician and storyteller), Maria Muldaur (folk-blues singer), and John P. Hammond (blues singer/guitarist).

Interestingly enough the only real flaw I could find with the book actually occurs on the front cover. Mr. Epstein sub-titled this biography “A Portrait.” As you know a portrait can be interpreted as simply a snapshot, static image, or vision frozen in time. The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, on the other hand, is far from singular. It does not focus on a single event or a stationary moment but envelops many of the most important moments in the life of one of the most influential song-writers the world has ever seen. The Ballad of Bob Dylan is, in short, a fluid, brilliant, and astute portrayal of one of the most prolific and significant artists of our time and well worth the price of admission.

4 out of 5 stars

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Additional Reading:

For Bob Dylan fans:

Bob Dylan Wiki site

Official Bob Dylan site

Expecting Rain (A Dylan website)

Bob Dylan on IMDB

One of the first Bob Dylan sites on the internet

A listing of Bob Dylan books and resources

For Folk Music fans in general:

Official Eric Andersen site

Official Tom Paxton site

Official Woody Guthrie site

Official Ramblin’ Jack Elliott site

Official Pete Seeger site

Official Maria Muldaur site

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