Archive for November, 2022


Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022, 339 pp., ISBN 9781-1-4516-4870-6

The Philosophy of Modern Song, the third published book (lyrics collections apart) by Bob Dylan, the artist seen by many as the greatest songwriter of all time, is, decidedly, a strange piece of work. Since its appearance on 1 November 2022 this volume, made up of commentaries by Dylan on a choice of 66 songs pertaining to various popular music genres, none of them composed by himself, has received a flood of reviews. This abundance no doubt reflects his advanced age of 81 and his controversial Nobel literature award of 2016. Despite the plethora of already existing readings, the present review is offered as, in Dylan’s words from ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, ‘another tale to tell’ –  a contribution to a collective debate which, with Dylan, is by its nature inexhaustible.

The volume’s strangeness begins with the title. Why modern song, and why philosophy? ‘Modern’ here scarcely means contemporary. The oldest song discussed, ‘Nelly Was a Lady’ by nineteenth-century songsmith Stephen Foster, dates from 1849; the two most recent, by the Native American singer John Trudell and the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, from 2001 and 2003 respectively – and both are now dead. The overwhelming bulk of the ‘modern’ songs are thus in fact from the twentieth century (the music of whose latter part, spearheaded by the punk/New Wave generation, is represented only by Elvis Costello and the Clash).The term ‘philosophy’ has raised some eyebrows, but to me it suggests a parallel with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous essay of 1846, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, in which Poe explicates how he wrote his celebrated poem ‘The Raven’ (we may note that when discussing Stephen Foster Dylan calls him ‘the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe’ – 115).

The book consists of 66 ‘chapters’ (which we will here call entries, as some are very brief), The headings are typically structured as follows: song title-featured act-record label-year of release-composer(s). Then comes a text by Dylan, of varying characteristics: some focusing on song and artist; others offering Bob Dylan’s elucubrations on subjects such as gambling, divorce or war, related at least tenuously in some way to the songs; and others combining the two approaches. The release dates generally mark the song’s first appearance on record, though for some of the older songs the date cited is a later one.

The song selection has attracted much attention among reviewers as regards choice of artist or genre – what is in and what is out. The titles range from the deeply obscure (as with minor Sun Records rock’n’roll recordings) to the most famous of standards – Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’, or what we might call the blue triad of ‘Blue Moon’ (Dean Martin), ‘Blue Bayou’ (Roy Orbison) and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (Carl Perkins). It is useful also to note those artists not represented by an entry whom Dylan nonetheless mentions in running text, thus conferring a kind of subsidiary recognition. A strange aspect is that only once in the whole book does Bob Dylan name one of his own songs – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, as a source for Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ (9). Arguably as self-effacing is the circumstance that, while Dylan has at one time or another covered some of the chosen songs, nowhere in the book is such overlap mentioned. Those covers nonetheless include: on studio albums, ‘Blue Moon’ and the cabaret standard ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’; on heritage albums, the folk tune ‘Jesse James’, Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’; and in unreleased performances, the Clash anthem ‘London Calling’ and (with Willie Nelson) Townes van Zandt’s outlaw classic ‘Pancho and Lefty’.

As regards genre, those most represented are four in number: rock’n’roll/rockabilly, country/country blues/bluegrass, R&B/soul and crooner/cabaret/songs from the shows. The last-named category should not surprise in the wake of Dylan’s three ‘Sinatra albums’ of recent years. Unexpected though surely is the relative absence of folk material and of blues proper – Pete Seeger for folk, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed for the blues get a look-in, but there is not a single song or artist from the seminal Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell are nowhere to be seen; and bizarrely the young Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie appears only in running text. Latin rock features with a one-off from Santana, reggae not at all. The artists included are overwhelmingly from the US;  the UK representation apart from Costello and the Clash stretches to The Who. The non-Anglophone world is, laudably, represented, with the Brecht/Weill classic ‘Mack the Knife’ and Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ (‘Beyond the Sea’), both sung in English by Bobby Darin, and Domenico Modugno’s ‘Volare’ (appearing in its composer’s original Italian, though there is no mention of the celebrated Gipsy Kings version). 

There is no Beatles song among the entries, although the group or its members are, on my count, referenced a good nine times in running text (‘Fool on the Hill’ twice – 51, 96). The absence of the Fab Four is in striking contrast to the presence of other legendary artists – some appearing twice, as with Elvis Presley (‘Money Honey’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’), Johnny Cash (‘Big River’, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’) or Little Richard (‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Long Tall Sally’). A curious feature of Dylan’s selection is the virtual absence of his singer-songwriter peers, even where he is known to admire their work. Alluded to only in running text are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen, and not namechecked at all are Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, Neil Young, and, believe it or not, Leonard Cohen. The only such singer-songwriters who do get to make it are Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and (more songwriter than singer) Jimmy Webb with ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – in his little-known own rendition rather than the Glen Campbell version that made it famous. Meanwhile of artists who have at one time or other worked with Dylan, the Grateful Dead are there with ‘Truckin’’, but there is no sign of The Band.

Numerous commentators have drawn attention to the absence from this book’s world of women artists. Indeed, of the 66 songs only four are performed by women – Nina Simone (‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’), Cher (‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’), Rosemary Clooney (‘Come On-A My House’) and Judy Garland (‘Come Rain or Come Shine’); one may add Zola Taylor, one-fifth of the Platters on their classic track ‘My Prayer’. To be fair, women songwriters also feature (e.g. Cynthia Weil, of the Mann/Weil duo behind the Nina Simone song), and various female artists at least appear in running text, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The last-named is praised for her ‘terrific’ version of ‘Blue Bayou’, nonetheless seen as inferior to Roy Orbison’s original (170). At all events, it is hard to disagree with the diagnosis of female under-representation.

What is not there is important, but more so is what is there, especially where Dylan’s comments focus on the artist and provide information that helps appreciation of the song. This may be said of, for example, the entries on ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (here in a duet by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballad ‘El Paso’, or Dion’s Broadway-derived ‘Where or When’. At its best, Dylan’s song list has the effect of familiarising his readers/listeners with the more obscure material while deepening their appreciation of the well-known numbers. It also confirms his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular song, something he had already demonstrated on the airwaves via his Theme Time Radio Hour programme.

However, many of Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness commentaries can be perceived as, at best, tangential to the songs. Some comments are lucid and fair; others come over as idiosyncratic to the point of cantankerousness. The entry on Edwin Starr’s Motown protest classic ‘War’ (a song later covered by Bruce Springsteen, though Dylan doesn’t mention that) offers a disquisition on modern warfare whose author strangely fails to remind us that once upon a time he wrote ‘Masters of War’. Another entry, that for the Drifters’ ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’, says next to nothing about the song with its punchline ‘Who cares what picture you see’, instead launching into a lengthy paean to US cinema: this would have been of more interest elsewhere and does not seem entirely relevant as a riposte to the hedonistic Drifters.

Dylan’s texts in this strange book vary enormously in length, register and attitude. Individual readers will prefer different ones depending on their world-view, but I would hazard a guess that for the future of Dylan studies the song selection will prove to be more important than the author’s musings. The Philosophy of Modern Song will probably end up perceived as a minor work, but one which nevertheless improves our knowledge and appreciation of Bob Dylan’s world and is also a gateway to a fascinating universe of song, much of it from a past that his pages bring back to life. In the final paragraph Dylan declares that ‘music .. is of a time but also timeless, a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself’ (334). After that philosophical observation, Bob Dylan’s book closes (to quote his song ‘Going, Going, Gone’) ‘on the pages and the text’ – and opens up reflection in his readers’ and listeners’ minds.


Update, 27 December 2022

This review has now been published as part of a forum on Dylan’s book (the other participants are Bob Jope and Sid Astbury) in The Bridge. Details are:

“’Another Tale To Tell”: Review of Bob Dylan, “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 74, Winter 2022, pp. 77-81