Bob Dylan’s ‘Philosophy of Modern Song” Book Dissects 66 Songs

The content of this book is a lie.

There is no “philosophy” offered here—no more theory or argument made about songwriting or singing. There is no explanation as to why Bob Dylan chose these 66 particular records as subjects for essays that include criticism, history, and surprising leaps of logic.

As for “current,” well, I guess it depends on your perspective. The most recent recording considered here is a classic—Stephen Foster’s 1849 “Nelly Was a Lady” cut by bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart in 2004. Other than that, there are only two songs from 21St century included, while almost half of the selections are from the 1950s, Bobby Zimmerman’s formative years. (It’s worth noting that only four of his choices were made by women.)

So, no, there’s no K-Pop, emo, chillwave, or trap represented inside Philosophy of Modern Music-the most “modern” form of early punk is expressed, and Dylan takes the issue with the actions he includes: He writes that the writing of Elvis Costello (“Pump It Up”) includes “Too many thoughts, too many words. Too many ideas that just collide,” and says of Collision (“Calling London”) that “Most of their songs are overwrought, overwritten, well-intentioned.”

bob dylan records "bring it all back home"

Bob Dylan while recording his album Bringing It All Back Home January 1965 at Columbia Studio A in New York City, New York.

Michael Ochs Archives//Getty Images

Lying, however, is nothing new for the 2016 Nobel laureate in literature. He started doing his own history as soon as people started asking, with his beautiful 2004 history. Chronicles: Volume One it is easily full of deception. But remember that accuracy is not the same as truth.

Most of these chapters, from one paragraph to half a dozen pages, are meditations on the song, examining the root of the emotion or the emotion it evokes. These are usually written in the second person, but the immediate “you” sometimes refers to the singer and sometimes the listener. Dylan’s voice leans towards a hard-boiled mid-century jive: “Sitting in the shadows, fallen, unknown, unknown, watching everything go by, untouchable, hard-bitten — impenetrable” or “You want to be freed from everything. man.”

Usually, this method is replaced or accompanied by a history lesson. These pieces are reminiscent of Dylan’s narration of his 100th episode of “Theme Time Radio Hour”, a clear example of this collection. And these are not lies at all. Rosemary Clooney’s “Come-to-My-House” (which she describes as “the song of a deviant, a traitor, a mass murderer”) was actually written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Saroyan and his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, who later he invented Alvin and the Chipmunks. Elsewhere, we learn that Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay Deep Sleeprewrote the first draft of the The Empire Strikes Backand that the image of the lemmings “rushing to their shared doom” is a lie, created for a Disney documentary.

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Other songs serve as launching pads for Dylan’s non-musical philosophy. Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheap To Keep Her” sets out to undermine the divorce industry, building a case for the benefits of polygamy. We study the history of the famous Western Wear Nudie Suit, the contrast between George Bush’s Gulf War and George W. Bush’s Iraq War (“The War” by Edwin Starr), and the creation of the “world language” of Esperanto (“Don’). I must not be misunderstood”). Occasionally, the meeting paused for a list—singers, songs based on ancient hymns.

Lying, however, is nothing new for the 2016 Nobel laureate in literature.

The best moments come when Dylan gets caught up in his brilliant tongue and can’t stop. “He’s a crook, a showman, a two-faced fraud—a dove, a disgraced salesman—a trafficker and a rat—a human trafficker and a car traitor,” he writes, mocking Moses Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.” ” Or when he takes the meaning of a song to extremes: Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” can “predict the future, find lost things, cure diseases, identify criminals,” while Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”. ” “it is a song of doom, where you are led by the nose into nuclear war.”

The book is a laugh riot, filled with some killer vaudeville-zingers. “No matter how many chairs you’ve got, you’ve only got one ass,” says the greatest songwriter of his generation, elsewhere suggesting that “Enjoy your list of free, cumin-infused, cayenne-dusted heirloom reductions. Sometimes it’s better to have a BLT and make ” And the secret weapon is the pictures, packed with old movie posters, old ads, and jokes that sometimes require a few glances (the “Big Boss Man” entry has Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone on one page, opposite a picture of Col. Tom Parker talking to Elvis) .

But it’s clear that these songs are no joke to Dylan. In a 1997 interview, he said “I find religion and philosophy in music. I can’t find it anywhere else.” And it’s the endless life-or-death and apocalyptic visions, even played for comedy, that sometimes do Philosophy of Modern Music a little tired. Only a few selections (“Come Rain or Come Shine”) offer any kind of relief in the face of inevitable cruelty or impending doom. It’s probably best used in small chunks—episodes—rather than all at once.

Surprisingly, Dylan himself describes this flaw – the risk of assigning a great artist to one method and limiting their range of emotions. He writes: “Johnny Cash likes to be the Man in Black and dresses appropriately, but the truth is that he is an all-around artist and man.” His best records are playful and full of words and humor, miles from August’s ball-killing event, hardscrabble stories and Trent Reznor covers that his fans have been waiting for. “

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However, if you pay enough attention, some great ideas start to emerge, or at least some creative tips for songwriters. “Beginner writers often hide behind filigrees,” Dylan writes. “In most cases the art is in the unexplained.” He warns of the “trap of easy rhymes” (as avoided in the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”) and explains how Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live” is “about a three-syllable rhyme: street before, feet.” before, the heart of the town, part of the town, worries me, it’s better to be like that. ”

At 81 years old, Dylan has spent much of his life analyzing how his personal life informs his songwriting, and here he recognizes the limits of autobiographical lyrics. “Sometimes when songwriters write about their own lives, the results can be obvious, some people can’t relate to them. Writing songs in diaries does not guarantee a song from the heart.” (In a clever chess move, he adds that “Knowing the singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of the song.”)

As shown in “Timing Time”, when Dylan seems to be most focused on the music is when his story rings loudest. “Being a writer is not something one chooses to do,” he said. “It’s what you do and sometimes people stop and notice.” Taking a dig at Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Dylan says “The thing about being on the road is that there’s nothing to worry about. Not bad news. You make other people happy and you keep your pain to yourself.”

Another way to consider Bob Dylan’s career is as a lifelong project that explores American music of all genres. It describes interesting works like his Christmas album or his three volumes of Frank Sinatra material. Since he has worked with folk music, rock, blues, and country music, it makes his gospel time almost non-existent. Philosophy of Modern Music it brings (almost) all under one roof, with observations, details, and asides to be chewed over, burning insights quickly gained, again and again.

“Music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space,” Dylan writes. And after working on this book for twelve years (he claims) and putting more than a dozen songs under the microscope in one way or another, he concludes that “The more you study music, the less you understand it.” All he can offer is that “something mysterious happens when words are put to music. The miracle is in their unity…People always try to turn music into science, but in science one and the other will always be two. Music, like all art, including the art of love, tells us over and over again that one added to another, in the best of circumstances, equals three.”

And if it’s good it’s not a lie.

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