‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’ by Bob Dylan: book review
Bob Dylan offered some thoughts on songwriting to the new yorker in 1964, as sessions continued for his fourth studio album, Another side of Bob Dylan. “The songs are so confining,” the 23-year-old said. “Woody Guthrie once told me that songs don’t have to rhyme – they don’t have to do anything like that. But that’s not true. A song has to have some kind of shape to fit in with the music. You can bend the words and the meter, but it still has to fit somehow.”
Even then, Dylan was thinking about how the elements of songwriting could be combined to form a cohesive picture – and how he might be able to change, shift or sometimes completely remove these elements to write songs that would become widely cited pillars of American music.
Today, six decades after the release of his first album, Dylan considers these elements again. His most recent book, The Philosophy of Modern Songexplores over 60 tracks written and performed by other artists, ranging from Dean Martin’s “Blue Moon” to the Shock“London Calling”. Most of the book’s tidy chapters are divided into two: the first half is devoted to the theatrical description of the characters and the story of the song, while the second half focuses on the actual history of the song and the explanation of how it works. This is, in essence, the closest we can ever come to a Dylan songwriting masterclass.
Along the way, Dylan helps readers understand why a song lands emotionally and offers insight into its journey, though he cautions not to confuse the two. “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help in understanding a song,” he says, writing on Elvis Costello“Pump It Up.” “It’s how a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”
Fans and journalists have been trying for decades to unravel the mercurial mystery that Dylan presents to the world. There are no new answers to be found in The Philosophy of Modern Song. Dylan is about to address some of the most debated topics of his career – why he changed his name, why he continues to tour – but only via the stories of others. “As with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a little dodgy,” he wrote in the chapter on “There Stands the Glass,” sung by Webb Pierce.
The clearest example of this comes in the middle of the book. “People confuse tradition with calcification,” Dylan writes of The Osbourne Brothers’ “Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man)”. “The recording is just a snapshot of those musicians at that time.” For those who have been intrigued by Dylan’s constant reinvention of his songs, this is at least part of the explanation. Elsewhere, Dylan’s humor shines brightly. In the chapter on “Cheaper to Keep Her” by Johnnie Taylor, he discusses marriage and divorce and eventually reveals polygamous sympathies for both men and women. “Go ahead, ladies,” he wrote. “There is another glass ceiling to break.”
You won’t learn how to be a successful songwriter just by reading The Philosophy of Modern Song. Ultimately, this is primarily a book designed for Dylan to discuss some of the tracks that have sparked his interest, curiosity, and imagination over the years. He repeatedly hints that no official analysis of music should be taken without a grain of salt: “It can be argued that the more you study music, the less you understand it.” The Philosophy of Modern Song, then, is notable not because one of the most admired artists of his generation and beyond weighed in on the work of others, but because it proves a simple fact: Dylan loves music the same way than his fans. “Music transcends time by living in it”, he writes – and what a time to live.
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