Book Review – The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

Back in 2004, Bob Dylan published a book of (some of) his life called Chronicles: Volume One. It was a pretty insightful, entertaining look into the mind of this enigma. While we await Volume Two, we now have The Philosophy of Modern Song which is, well, a whole diffeerent beast. 

Dylan himself doesn’t give us any insight into what he’s up to as there is no introduction. But the blurb on the book liner says, “Dylan, who began working on the book in 2010, offers his extraordinary insight into the nature of popular music.

He writes over sixty essays focusing on songs by other artists, spanning from Stephen Foster to Elvis Costello, and in between ranging from Hank Williams to Nina Simone. He analyzes what he calls the trap of easy rhymes, breaks down how the addition of a single syllable can diminish a song, and even explains how bluegrass relates to heavy metal.

These essays are written in Dylan’s unique prose. They are mysterious and mercurial, poignant and profound, and often laugh-out-loud funny. And while they are ostensibly about music, they are really meditations and reflections on the human condition.

Running throughout the book are nearly 150 carefully curated (and stikingly weird – ME) photos as well as a series of dream-like riffs that, taken together, resemble an epic poem and add to the work’s transcendence.It is a momentous artistic achievement.”

Well, I don’t know how “momentous” it is but it’s a pretty good read. As to which songs Dylan writes about, let us just say that his concept of “modern song” is likely quite different than yours or mine. Of the 60+ songs he mentions, the most recent is Warren Zevon’s 2003 “Dirty Life and Times” then before that, Elvis Costello’s 1978 “Pump It Up.”

Many of these songs are not only quite a bit older than that but hardly as well-known. Not unless you’re a fan of songs like “Ruby, Ae You Mad?,” “Take Me From this Garden of Evil,” or the ever popular “Nelly Was a Lady.”

Yeah, but – you beseech earnestly – Dylan started out as a folkie. He worshiped Woody Guthrie. He visited him on his deathbed. He must have a lot of folk songs and a couple of Guthrie songs. Wrong. And wrong. (But he does have space for “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.”) He does, however, cover Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which is a metaphor for the disastrous and unnecessary war America fought with Vietnam.

To these eyes and ears, the preponderance of tunes seems to be safely embedded in the country genre. And sure, country has both folk and blues elements. But country really stands out here as do standards like “Mack the Knife,” “Volare,” “Blue Moon,” and “Strangers in the Night.” I count agout 23 or so that come from the rock/soul/R&B genre. I’m pleased to state that “Midnight Rider,” made the cut but weirdly, no Beatles. (Dylan is a longtime friend of the Fab Four and praised them since Day One.)

I think what old Zimmy really digs is a good story. I think he likes a well-crafted tune that not only tells that story but which also fires up his voluminous imagination and gives him somehting to “philosophize” about.

Take, for example, “There Stands the Glass,” by Webb Pierce who, “was an American honky-tonk vocalist, songwriter and guitarist of the 1950s, one of the most popular of the genre, charting more number one hits than any other country artist during the decade.”

This tune may sound corny as shit to you but check out the lyrics.

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother, I’m on my way

Now, if you were asked to write an essay about this song my guess is you’d say it’s about a drunk singing about his lost love. Heh! Too obvious for the Maestro of Hibbing, Minnesota. A sample of what Dylan says is this:

“He fought like a savage, he stuck a bayonet into babies’ bellies and gouged out old men’s eyes. He’s been unfaithful to the human spirit and he’s assassinated priests. He’s lived on rations and he’s done degenerate and demonic things.”

Well, alrighty then. Let’s see if we can find a cheerier song, shall we kids?

Do you know Mose Allison? He was “an American jazz and blues pianist, singer, and songwriter. He became notable for playing a unique mix of blues and modern jazz, both singing and playing piano. After moving to New York in 1956, he worked primarily in jazz settings, playing with jazz musicians like Stan Getz, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims, along with producing numerous recordings.”

“Everybody Cryin’ Mercy” is, per Dylan, “an intense and serious take on hypocrisy. Mose sings this song in his usual style. Laid-back, half asleep. Like you don’t want to spend any energy.” (Mose is from MIssissipps and one moves slowly down there in the summer.)

I can’t believe the things I’ve seen
I wonder bout some things I’ve heard
Everybody’s crying mercy
When they don’t know the meaning of the word

War! Huh!
What is it good for
Absolutely nothin’

Charles Edwin Hatcher known by his stage name Edwin Starr, was an American singer and songwriter. Starr was famous for his Norman Whitfield-produced Motown singles of the 1970s, most notably the number-one hit “War.”

Dylan advises that “this song was originally an album track by the Temptations on their Psychedelic Shack LP from 1970.” There was some debate within Motown as to whether or not to release it as a single. Motown had yet to go full-bore into 1960’s-style social consciousness. That wouldn’t really happen until 1971’s What’s Goin’ On. (But 1970’s “Ball of Confusion” is represented on the list as well.)

Dylan says, “One can’t help but wonder whether or not the peacenik snetiment behind “War” was sincere or merely the next relevant subjecct to be mined in Motown’s attempt to reach Young America’s wallets. … Even if it was a blatant exploitation of the peace movement, it’s still a stronger song than “Eve of Destruction.” Note that Springsteen does a killer version of this song.

What about some of that rock you said he did Mr. Music Enthusiast? Well the aforementiond “Dirty Life and Times” by Warren Zevon qualifies as a country-ish tune done by a legitimate rocker.

“The Wind is the twelfth and final studio album by American singer-songwriter Warren Zevon.  Zevon began recording the album shortly after he was diagnosed with inoperable pleural mesothelioma, and it was released just two weeks before his death on September 7, 2003.

The album was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and “Disorder in the House,” performed by Zevon with Bruce Springsteen, won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance (Group or Duo). Songs from the album were nominated for an additional three Grammys.”

Gets a little lonely, folks, you know what I mean
I’m looking for a woman with low self esteem
To lay me out and ease my worried mind
While I’m winding down my dirty life and times

In case you’re wondering who did the raw backing vocals on this, it’s none other than Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade!). Don Henley plays drums and that is the estimable Ry Cooder on guitar.

Of Cooder, Dylan says, “there was no road map when he was trying to figure the connection between Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Alfred Reed, the place where conjunto met the gutbucket blues, where even a jake-leg could do a cakewalk.” There was no record he was on, Dylan says, that he didn’t improve.

Let us end this journey into the Mind of Bob Dylan with some Chicago blues and “Key to the Highway.” If you’re at all familar with Little Walter, you know he was the harp player to end all harp players. But did you know he was, according to Dylan, an excellent guitar player and a “greater singer than anyone on Chess Records?”

As to keys, the Nobel guy tells us that, “I have gotten lots of keys to cities but I haven’t opened anything yet. Seven keys from seven houses in seven towns are supposed to cure impotence. You can strike a werewolf in the forehead with a key and that will bring him back to his human life ” Etcetera.

I should also mention that in addition to pictures of some of the artists, the book contains an oddball collection of weird pictures designed to evoke- well I’m not really sure what the fuck they are supposed to evoke.

If this sort of thing intrigues you, i personally found the book rewarding and interesting to read. For all his off-the-wall comments, let us not forget that Dylan himself is a master tunesmith. So when he speaks about songwriting, attention must be paid.

Some enterprising soul has put together a list of the tunes on Spofify. So, enjoy this “modern music” if by “modern” we mean somewhere between the Twenties and the Fifties. Hey. Where else are you gonna hear “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy?”


29 thoughts on “Book Review – The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

  1. Based on your description and my still relatively limited knowledge of Mr. Zimmerman, in many regards the way this book is done sounds like typical Dylan to me.

    I just checked out the playlist. It does include great tunes like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”, The Who’s “My Generation”, Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'”, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”, Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and, as you noted, the mighty “Midnight Rider.”

    But no Beatles, no Stones, no Kinks, no Cream, no Zep – hm…

    I also just noticed that Elvis Presley’s great rendition of “Money Honey” is a knock off of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula”. Does the maestro say anything about this? I guess probably not…


    1. Is that true? I never noticed. The maestro missed it as well. I wonder if he has people halping him with research. There are some obscure tidbits in the book. Lennon loved “Be- Bop-a-Lula” and would listen to it relentlessly. He later recorded it for his Rock and Roll album. By then though, I think it had lost a lot of its early power.


      1. The similarity between the two tunes stroke me immediately. It may have happened subconsciously. Plus, I guess in some regards you could attribute it to the general similarity of early rock & roll and rockabilly music.


  2. It’s not a philosophy, it’s more a specific history of pop music that Dylan delivers here, but I found the book a bit disappointing.


      1. Dylan’s end of life retrospective ends in 2003 with Warren Zevon. The 1960s, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones showed how modern and contemporary pop music could be, are left out. The whole thing is more according to the lines: When America was still great, everything was good.


        1. Interesting perspective. Didn’t see it that way. Dylans not a young guy anymore. Maybe he’s nostalgic for a specific America. Many people here are nostalgic for an America that existed only in their imagination. And if any decade was Dylans it was the 60s. I think he did his most important work then. That said, he has admitted to no special fondness for that decade.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Bob is an interesting guy for sure. His music choices dont surprise me, it’s just cool that he digs cool stuff. I knew he was a rocker at heart. CB is a Vincent guy and still is. His music still moves me big time.
    When I clicked on your post, who do I see on the cover of the book, Eddie Cochran. Tells a story.


    1. He is a rocker but his country stuff outweighs it. There’s two Johnny Cash songs on the list. CB outta spin through the Spotify list. I never heard “There Stands the Glass” before and fell in love with it. BTW, I had no idea that was Cochran. Who’s the kid? A young Jimmy Page?


      1. I was hooked into ‘Travelin Through’ for a while. Cash joins him. All the music that spawned those bands you like came from country/hillbilly music. I hear it in just about everything I listen to (except jazz). Just listened to ‘Almost Blue’ (great record in my opinion) by EC the other day. I’ve heard from other folks that Bill Monroe was the father of “speed metal” before. Eclectic songs on the list. I know quite a few, even some of the obscure ones. John Trudell? Doesnt surprise me.


        1. I kinda figured CB might know those. ‘Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy’ might be his theme song. Trudell was a new name for me. I listened to ‘Almost Blue’ not too long ago when I spun (most of) EC’s discography.


        2. Ill give a few more of those a listen. EC is a hard core country guy. I knew you listened to it lately. Trudell was a an interesting character. His stuff is talk music. Heavily political.

          Liked by 1 person

        1. I think Zimmy digs the well-constructed song, the story. But more than a few are not for me. I bet he could fill three more books. Watch for a Shorter tribute. I was working on one anyway. Zawinul, Pastorius, Shorter – all gone. Saw Weather Report in their prime. Those days are gone.


        2. Yup with ya on WR. Great group. Im digging the stuff all over again plus the various sidebars those guys took plus solo work. Amazing really. Shorter was on the Carter doc you pointed me to.
          Im a story guy too. Folk music is a hard one for me. I like the guts behind it but not big on my player. Same as Dixieland. Appreciate it but in small doses. ‘Big Muddy’ is a great tune and Seeger pulls it off. I for one like that Bob plugged in. Remember how much fun he had on Waltz when the rocked out on ‘Follow You Down’. He actually smiled.


        3. I mentioned I’m reading History of Jazz. My problem with a lot of the older stuff is not with the players but often the arrangements. So fucking corny. My real interest in jazz probably starts with bebop.


        4. Yeah, no matter how much of a masterpiece a movie may be, my wife can’t watch many pre-50s movies. And even then. Too dated in so many ways. I just factor it in.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. Ive hooked into some really good old stuff. it’s like music you hafta dig. John Ford was the king of “corn”. You can count on one hand how many recent Academy Award movies Ive watched in the last 20 last years. Couldnt tell you one thats nominated this year.
          My gang keep abreast “Hey CB you gotta check this out”


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