Needless to say, my site title draws from Dylan’s book title, but only because of a conversation with my sixteen year old daughter Grace. She saw me reading Dylan’s book and asked me what modern songs he wrote about. When I said, “Most of them are from the 50s,” she replied, “That’s not exactly modern, is it?” To make things worse, I pointed out the book isn’t quite philosophy either, so she felt bound to point out that the title of the book sounded somewhat defective. Then she said that she wished someone were writing this way about current artists, like Nicki Minaj. We considered the difference between modern and contemporary, and I suggested that Dylan might have meant by “modern” the beginning of our current musical forms, which in many cases might be the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.
At any rate, that’s when I decided to retitle my site The Philosophy of Contemporary Song. I’ll post about Minaj sometime in the near future.
Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster, 2022) is in one important sense a perfectly written book: it’s exactly what Dylan wants it to be. It’s in his voice, it accomplishes his purposes, it says what he wants it to say. I’d love to sit down with Dylan sometime and have a long, heart to heart conversation about our friend the comma, and our common enemies the comma splice and the run-on sentence, but what kind of a pedant wants to talk to Bob Dylan about commas?
Check out my iTunes playlist for Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song.
Apparently me, I am sorry to say.
But it’s still a perfectly written book because it’s in his voice. All of the missing and offending commas are there (or not) to capture that voice. And this book isn’t Dylan’s first. He’s the author of collections of poetry, original art, and song lyrics as well as memoir, a Nobel prize lecture, and now a series of sixty-six short essays about a selection of American songs from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty first. So the question is always why this book? How does it serve his purposes?
When a rock musician gives a song list, it doesn’t hurt to think about what they mean to do with it. David Bowie was asked by Vanity Fair in 2003 to produce a list of his twenty-five favorite albums, and when he described the selection process, he said he pulled out Sgt. Pepper’s and Nirvana and then put them back because they were too obvious. But do you know what that means? Sgt. Pepper’s and whatever Nirvana album he’d selected were important choices and they didn’t make the list. The point here was to draw attention to albums Bowie loved that wasn’t on everyone else’s list too.
I think to some extent Dylan wants to serve the same purposes that Bowie did with his album selection — to draw attention to important but lesser known artists and their songs. For example, Jimmy Wages’s “Take Me (From This Garden Of Evil)” (1956) was left unreleased at the time of its recording. Dylan believes it wasn’t released because it wasn’t a teen hit. Instead, this song “presses the panic button. This record might be the first and only gospel rockabilly record. This is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the land, call it what you will” (p. 17). According to Discogs this single wasn’t released until 2001, so it could hardly have been a formative influence on Dylan.
So why did Dylan select it? I think because it’s a great song, because it works, and I think Dylan wants to describe how it works. I believe that’s what he means by the philosophy of modern song, and I believe that’s the purpose of his book and of his selections.
His purposes for writing the book become more apparent if we examine the content of his entries. Each entry tends to be made up of one or more of the following parts:
- They’re never introduced as such, but almost every entry starts with a description of what the song makes Dylan see and feel. What he imagines when he hears the song, or what memories are brought to mind. What the songs evoke in him. Artwork scattered throughout the book, often in scrapbook format, lends to this impression as well. I love Sean O’Hagan’s description in The Guardian of these segments as Dylan evoking “the atmosphere or emotional resonance of a lyric by stepping inside the mind of the narrator and, by extension, the songwriter.” Perfect description.
- Some background on the artist or performer. Jimmy Wages, for example, grew up very close to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, but Elvis moved on to Memphis at the age of eight while Wages stayed in Tupelo. Dylan, considering that fact, has to ask what might have been had Wages moved up to Memphis too.
- Background on the songwriting, the songwriters, or the song itself, which in some cases has a much longer history than expected. These segments, when present, are particularly interesting.
- Background on the recording.
- Commentary on the artist’s vocal or instrumental performance.
- Within all of the above, some commentary on how the song works. Every song chosen for this collection works for Dylan, and he writes to understand how and why. That how and why is his philosophy of modern song.
Not every entry has all of these elements. Every entry performs at least one of these tasks, though. If Dylan doesn’t cover most of it in any given entry, and he always performs the first task, what the song evokes in him, it’s often because he may have two or three entries covering songs by the same artist. I think Dylan chose these songs because of what they allowed him to say at the moment, what they allowed him to write. I don’t think this book consists of a favorites or influences list even though it certainly does include some favorites and influences. I think it’s always a “what does this song allow me to say about songwriting” list, though.
And what about his coverage? I’ve made up a spreadsheet laying out the song and artist demographics across the entire book. Dylan wrote about
- Five female singers and seven female songwriters. I count everyone in vocal groups like the Temptations.
- 63 male singers and 100 male songwriters.
- 19 of these artists were singer/songwriters, not in the sense of genre, but only in the sense that the performer wrote their own material. Only one song is ascribed to “Traditional.”
- By decade, Dylan discusses one song from the nineteenth century (but as recorded by a contemporary artist in the twenty first), three from the 20s, one from the 40s, twenty-eight from the 50s, thirteen from the 60s, fourteen from the 70s, three from the 80s, one from the 90s, and three from the 2000s, but only two if you push that cover version back to the nineteenth century where it belongs. Is it surprising that nearly half of the songs chosen are from the 1950s? Not for an artist whose first album came out in 1963. So Dylan is indeed revealing his influences, but we shouldn’t forget his choice of Jimmy Wages either.
- By genre, Dylan chose twenty-three rock or rockabilly songs (too lazy to split these up, but I should), one punk song, fourteen country songs, five folk songs, one bluegrass, three each jazz and blues, twelve early pop songs (easy listening/ big band), and four songs that fall into the categories of either R’n’B, soul, or funk. I expected more folk and less rock, but the big band songs aren’t surprising given his recent albums. We also need to keep in mind that if you go back far enough, rock, rockabilly, folk, and country were all very close together. Sometimes the lines between them all get very thin.
So what do all of these numbers add up to? Dylan was most interested in writing about 50s’ rock and rockabilly with country not far behind, and with the 60s and 70s not far behind. The book is almost completely made up of rock, rockabilly, and country songs from the 50s to the 70s, about 90% numerically. And of equal importance, these songs were popularized by American artists with the exception of “London Calling” by the Clash, his sole punk selection, “My Generation” by The Who, and Elvis Costello. I think this book is reflective of Dylan’s lifetime commitment to American musical forms. There’s no prog or metal in here, although he mentions metal in an interesting comparison with bluegrass. His project wasn’t always to be original, but to preserve and reflect the diversity of American music.
I’ve taken up a good bit of time trying to understand Dylan’s book on its own terms. Some reviewers, annoyingly, do not. One reviewer accuses Dylan of hating women because of the ratio of male to female songwriters — and I have to admit, it’s not a good ratio, but nearly half the songs are from the 1950s or before, and nearly all the songs are from before the 1980s. While there were a number of important women songwriters during this time, there weren’t many compared to men — but worse, the reviewer complains because of some of the lines sung in other people’s songs. That judgment truly demonstrates an inability to read: the issue is not what the song narrates, which often includes evil, heartbreak, and betrayal, but the narrative attitude toward what the song narrates. Depiction isn’t advocacy. The author or authors of 2 Samuel narrate David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for example, but the narrative — or the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian Bible, for that matter — doesn’t condone adultery, especially not in that specific story.
Reviews tend to ignore some of the most striking comments in the book, such as Dylan’s praise of Tin Pan Alley songwriters — songwriters contracted out to record companies who wrote for multiple performers — even though he panned them in the 60s, leading to the singer-songwriter movement. He also speculates that in our relationships, marriage itself, a lifetime commitment, may be the problem — because of divorce and its monetary implications, and specifically because of lawyers. His solution? Polygamy. Is Dylan updating Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” observing how our systems of laws and religions interfere with something as natural as love? Or is he just following the trajectory of “Cheaper To Keep Her”? How can you listen to that song and not think of lawyers, marriage, and divorce?
There are more women in the book than is reflected in song coverage. He mentions Aretha Franklin and Sister Rosetta Tharpe while writing about other artists. Why is Cher on the list while Carole King is not? And while I wish Dylan had covered Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, he also didn’t cover any of the Beatles as solo artists or as a group, or David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and on and on, while he does cover Nina Simone. The Rolling Stones are out while the Grateful Dead is in. Why? I think in part because he was focused on American musicians, but also because of what he was trying to say: which, as always, is exactly what he wanted to say, exactly how he wanted to say it. If Dylan died tomorrow, this book would be a fitting last word.
I wish that Dylan would release a book like this written only about women singers and songwriters. He should dedicate it to Joan Baez. I think she’d have to die first. She’d certainly die afterwards.
I have a number of Bob Dylan playlists in iTunes that span his entire career. As you’ll see, some of them overlap because they’re not just chronological but cover different genres, projects, and commitments.
- Early Folk, 1962-1964
- Early Rock, 1964-1966
- Country Albums, 1967-1973
- Dylan and the Band, 1967-1974
- Dylan and the Band, 1970-1974 (the Complete Basement Tapes — I separated this one out because, by itself, it’s over 100 songs long).
- 70s’ Folk and Rock, 1970-1978
- Rolling Thunder Review Soundtrack, 1975-1976
- Dylan’s Gospel, 1979-1983 (but I capture as many of Dylan’s gospel or Biblically-themed songs that I could find from his first album to his most recent)
- Late Rock, 1983-1990
- Late Folk, 1985-Present
- The Nostalgia Albums, 1997-Present
- And if you really want to have some fun, check out my Dylan Covers playlist.
If you like my writing about music, check out my Bookstore.