Bob Dylan. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352pp.
REVIEW BY Jonathan Hodgers, Trinity College, Dublin
Dylan’s long-awaited Philosophy of Modern Song defies easy categorization. It’s sixtysix mini-essays on sixty-six songs. Pictures account for much of the content. Despite the title, it is not always a straightforward work of philosophy. If anything, it’s an annotated playlist dotted with philosophical reflections. However, the term playlist doesn’t do the book justice given how elaborate (or tangential) the annotations are. It’s also unclear how essential some of the songs are to the essays. They’re apt to work as jumping-off points for exploring a given subject matter and are not there as simple recommendations.
The book’s unusual presentation finds parallels in the content. There’s no introduction or conclusion, omitting an explanation of the book’s raison d’être. In the interview conducted by Jeff Slate for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of the book, Dylan doesn’t address the book’s inspiration or how he picked the songs. While the content can range widely, the essays follow a template of sorts. He will paraphrase the song’s plot and character dynamics, offer portraits of singers, describe particular performances, and reflect on musicological details or production qualities. He might also extemporize on the song’s themes. Different combinations thereof are regular. He juxtaposes the essays with images. Dylan calls them “running mates to the text.” Sometimes, their connection is oblique. Other times, the images reflect the essays’ topics (the verbal/visual interplay is delightfully basic at times – actual eagles for the Eagles, for instance). The template helps keep the chapters fresh by balancing consistency within variation (not unlike aspects of the songs he praises). It’s not an especially formalist text, which may partly be the point. He heavily emphasizes music’s emotive impact. However, songwriting’s more technical aspects do occasionally come under the microscope.
The writing itself has a distinct style. The tone is erudite but not alienating. It bears comparison to the World Gone Wrong liner notes, but adapts a cleaner, more prosaic approach fit for broader public consumption. At times, it can be blustery or gushing (the Perry Como entry: “[he] could out-sing anybody. His performance is just downright incredible. There is nothing small you can say about it. The orchestration alone can knock you off your feet.”) It can be prolix and prosaic, as with the “‘My Generation” entry: “They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke. You put your heart and soul into everything and shoot the works.” It’s vernacular, willfully leaning into cliché. He’s apparently having fun with the clichés too; his stitching them together has its own comedy value (“It’s just a hop skip and jump to cloud nine.”) What they lack in inventiveness or precision, they make up for in tone. It’s the way one might pitch a song or singer to a friend – it’s not all terse, calculated soundbites but draws from common stock locutions that convey unpremeditated enthusiasm. Comma splices, tautologies, and repetitions add to the effect. (These techniques seem to work better when spoken aloud, as attested to by the couple of passages Dylan recorded for the audiobook.) He’ll also link clichés and round them off with a more unusual turn of phrase (“You’re tickled pink and walking on air, and there’s no end to space.”)The blend of the familiar and the individual may be the point in some way. This tendency extends to the content. The combination of esoterica and unusual locutions with more conventional, encyclopaedic information gives the writing its richness (or, as he told Jeff Slate, the “pulling old elements together and making something new”).
Despite the essays mostly adhering to a similar structural outline, there are qualitative and quantitative differences between them. Some songs inspire more fleshed-out ideas and insightful commentary than others. It’s curious what songs defeat him. He can’t seem to do much with the two Little Richard songs (“Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) but is clearly taken with “Old Violin” – or specifically, a special live performance enriched by Johnny Paycheck’s presence – which inspires some of the book’s best writing. He highlights both physical gestures and vocal touches that capture the bottled lightening of the performance, conferring upon it a fated quality. Perhaps his commentary succeeds here owing to its audio-visual reference point; his writing magnifies objective features rather than offering subjective impressions. As vivid as Dylan’s more subjective paraphrases can be, his readings sometimes seem off. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” doesn’t work well. Dylan rather perversely sidesteps the obvious romantic dynamic and substitutes it for a less convincing business arrangement. The “Come On-A My House” essay aims to give the song a sinister touch, but it’s just not there, at least not in the Rosemary Clooney rendition. Mostly though, his writing offers evocative vignettes that tease out the song’s depths and elucidate the musicians’ contributions in perceptive ways.
Dylan appears to use these songs to declare allegiances with certain genres quite separate from actually liking the representative song he’s chosen to write about. Something about these songs moved him to write about them, but that’s not to say they’re strictly commendable. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe he finds anything of genuine interest (such as with “Come On-A My House” – in keeping with the food references, he calls it a “little trifle.”) However, it’s not so much his sincerity that matters (“I’m no more sincere than you” from Eat the Document springs to mind), more whether he sells these songs as having the qualities and values he ascribes to them. People’s tolerance levels will differ here. It’s unlikely anyone ever thought of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” the way Dylan does, but he certainly presents an interesting case.
Gradations of rock ’n’ roll, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley material spur most of the essays. Dylan omits much of the traditional material he made his name covering and adapting in the 1960s (“Jesse James” is the only representative). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t care for pop (loosely defined). In reference to Johnnie Ray, Dylan says “his feelings were too direct-hotwired from his brain for a mere pop record.” The term “mere” also appears in the “My Prayer” essay  He never makes clear what pop is (certainly, some of the songs he includes were emphatically popular and chart-friendly), yet he’s far from alone in using it as a catch-all term for songs considered inferior. Simon Frith identifies pop as a “residual” category, or “what’s left when all the other forms of popular music are stripped away.” Among other things, “It’s music produced commercially, for profit, as a matter of enterprise not art.” Dylan’s idea of it seems similar.
The way Dylan uses pop exemplifies how he uses contrasts in general to illustrate good-versus-bad performance practices and attitudes. Part of Dylan’s modus operandi is to make antagonists of certain musicians and styles against which good songs and musicians must win out. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, Joe Satriani (representing instrumental rock) stands in for guitar pyrotechnics without substance or respect for the song. Satriani is a virtuoso player but can of course play tastefully and judiciously. Satriani defended himself (“I think the great Hank Williams and I could have sorted things out and made some great music together”), but these references have less to do with personal slights than venerating and denigrating types of songs and styles through loose metonymy. Satriani’s not alone either; Dylan does the same with Springsteen and the Beatles. Springsteen’s characteristic sound clouds Costello’s “Pump it Up,” for instance, while the Beatles’ faux-naivete and adolescent appeal contrast poorly with “London Calling.” The entire Chess stable (among them, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf) takes a hit next to Little Walter, who “might have been the only one with real substance.” These performers and styles play oppositional parts, indicating predilections that Dylan portrays as lesser next to the songs, styles, and musicians he promotes. Such artists are collateral damage in Dylan’s dispensing praise.
This praise is where we often find the most philosophical material. While they don’t occupy the bulk of the book, there are philosophical precepts insofar as Dylan draws general principles from specific songs. Many qualities that he esteems are aesthetic evergreens. Lewis Rowell provides a summary in the context of Ancient Greek music philosophy: “simple is better than complex, natural is better than artificial, [and] moderation in all things.” The “Without a Song” essay touches on these facets in reference to Perry Como: “He was a Cadillac before the tail fins; a Colt .45, not a Glock; steak and potatoes, not California cuisine … No artifice, no forcing one syllable to spread itself thin across many notes.” Regarding “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” Dylan says: “Nothing artificial about this song, nothing manufactured or contrived about it. Nothing cosmetic or plastic here.” He also writes that “Key to the Highway” is “Unadorned, with no histrionics – controlled, nuanced and true.” Given his apparent interest in Greek myth and literature, it’s perhaps telling that Dylan’s criteria have an overall classical inclination. In the “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore” essay, he offers a tell-tale sign: “He’s no rapper. More like an ancient Greek poet; you know exactly what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to.”
Other entries praise judiciousness, balance, and brevity. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, he tells us that “The fiddle and steel guitar phrases are a great part of the melody. Each phrase goes hand in hand with the voice. This … takes simpatico players and is done with very simple notes of a chord, played with the exact correct intensity… Phrases like this are worth more than all the technical licks in the world.” Alongside this dig at perceived immoderation and showiness, one can detect a distrust of the glossy professional and respect for the street-schooled amateur. Aristotle would recognize Dylan’s attitude. In referring to music’s role in education, he avers that “pupils … not [be] made to attempt the extraordinary and extravagant feats of execution which have recently been introduced into competitions … Performances should be carried only to the point at which students begin to be able to appreciate good melodies and rhythms.”
À la Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, Dylan also praises the permanent and lasting. What counts is what’s durable. For “Ball of Confusion,” he writes: “The reality of this song is that it’s just as true now as the day it was recorded.” It also crops up in the “Black Magic Woman” chapter; those too in thrall to musical and literary rules “run the danger of never transcending craft to create anything truly lasting.” He’s more explicit in the Wall Street Journal interview: “A great song [is] timeless and ageless.”21 This mindset even extends to his pastimes. He tells Jeff Slate that boxing is “functional and detached from trends.”
As familiar as some of his judgments are from historical literature on music, he brings a host of newer parameters into his critique. Some are recognizable from popular music aesthetics in the rock era and in part stem from standards he himself helped to set. Broadly, we can see Dylan align with what Keir Keightley would see as Romantic authenticity, gravitating towards: “tradition and continuity with the past; roots; sense of community; populism; belief in a core or essential rock sound; folk, blues, country, rock’n’roll styles; gradual stylistic change; sincerity, directness; ‘liveness’; ‘natural’ sounds; [and] hiding musical technology.” Dylan touches on these qualities in his interview with Jeff Slate: “[The songs] were straightforward, and my relationship to them at first was external, then became personal and intense. The songs were simple, easy to understand, and they’d come to you in a direct way.” While his allegiances roughly lie with these Romantic precepts, Dylan does not always fit into them neatly. Individual songs capture his attention based on different criteria (what Keightley would see as modernist authenticity, indicated by a fondness for experimentation and progress). Novelty for its own sake doesn’t impress Dylan, but innovative, trailblazing songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “My Generation” are not overlooked.
Relatedly, mavericks operating within, outside, or against the mainstream garner his sympathy. The criteria are expressed neatly in the “Poison Love” entry when Dylan refers to Johnnie & Jack: “They deserve to be in all the halls of fame, because they are innovators – innovators on the highest level – and don’t jump through hoops for anybody.” In this context, unpretentious journeymen also fare well; as already noted, Dylan writes admiringly of Perry Como, but Bobby Darin too earns his praise. Believability counts for a great deal. We’re told that “When [Como] stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?” Indeed, believing the singer (over and above adherence to technical norms or conventionally pretty vocals) is part of Dylan’s influence – practically a testament to his own achievements. This leads us to a peculiar quality of the text: its autobiographical quality.
At times, his takes on songs and performers resonate with Dylan’s history. One can see parallels between the people he writes about and Dylan’s own life, as if he were explaining himself through analogous individuals. A reflection on Nuta Kotlyarenko in the “There Stands the Glass” essay offers tantalizing parallels with Dylan. Dylan’s version of Kotlyarenko’s biography practically remixes details from his own: Ukrainian Jewish ancestry; “trying his hand at boxing and acting”; moving from Minnesota to New York; and reinventing oneself. Dylan essentially talks about himself at times; musing on Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea,” he tells us that “Some people create new lives to hide their past. Bobby knew that sometimes the past was nothing more than an illusion and you might just as well keep making stuff up.” Even the name doesn’t need to be changed. He also writes about Johnny Paycheck’s name change in ways that clearly resonate with his own re-branding from Zimmerman to Dylan. In telling us about laudable songwriting, he additionally highlights other writers’ approaches that contextualise his own. In the “Ruby, Are You Mad?” essay, he tells us how “the song morphed and grew … It was still the same song but the tiny grace notes and elasticity kept it alive, shook the dust from its boots. Of course, some people cried foul and those people should’ve stayed home.” Also, in reference to Dion, he says that “Most recently, he has realized one of his early dreams and become some kind of elder legend, a bluesman from another Delta.” One can read a multitude of Dylan’s own experiences into these comments.
While Dylan broadly cleaves to Romantic authenticity as his yardstick, he is still apt to admire songs for contrasting reasons. He regularly praises the flexible and mutable. He appears to favour what Stephen Davies terms ontologically “thin” pieces. Thinner works facilitate more interpretation. Greater latitude is granted to the performer (within certain stylistic constraints). “Thicker” works (for example, a significant amount of classical music) require greater fidelity to specifics, where new interpretations have much in common with earlier iterations. He appears to gravitate to both songs’ and artists’ adaptability: “Bobby Darin could sound like anybody and sing any style”; “[Little Walter] is an amazingly flexible singer”; and “The malleability of [‘Blue Moon’] frees it from being too associated with any single version and allows it to belong to everyone.” He also touches on this in the Wall Street Journal interview: ‘A great song … can be played with a full orchestra score or by a strolling minstrel… A great song mutates, makes quantum leaps … It crosses genres … and can be played in …multiple styles.”
He appears to trust less those “thick” songs too in thrall to arrangements. In the “Blue Moon” essay, he avers that “Some songs, like … ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ … are as dependent on their arrangement as the music or lyrics for their identity. Not so ‘Blue Moon.’ ‘Blue Moon’ is a universal song that can appeal to anybody at any time.” While I’m not sure this is meant pejoratively, one still senses a hint of distaste in context. That being said, Dylan will promote the arrangement as the magic ingredient in a song. He tells us that for “It’s All in The Game,” “the arrangement is key.” This is to say he’s not especially prescriptive. Qualities that get in the way in one song are precisely what another song thrives on.
Dylan also occasionally highlights songwriting techniques; for instance, he appreciates paradox. He unearths unspoken undertows that deepen the song’s meaning. As Cleanth Brooks illuminated in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), the guise of simplicity or the direct attack (Brooks uses Wordsworth as an example) belies paradoxical situations that give ostensibly straightforward material extra resonance. Dylan astutely draws from The Who’s “My Generation” an anxiety on Townsend’s part that he will soon be the one the younger generation wishes would fade away. That awareness cannot be traced to any specific point in the song or line of the lyrics. Yet, the implicit fear can be intuited through a latent defensiveness. Dylan finds an analogous undertow to “Detroit City.”
Dylan wishes to preserve the capacity for people’s imagination to complete the song rather than have external imagery unduly influence their experience. He considers the background to “I’m A Fool to Want You” to be unhelpful trivia when “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” In the “Ball of Confusion” essay, he tells us “The song is like an old radio show, where you could just imagine what you’re listening to. And it made for a stronger experience.” In the “Old Violin” essay, he references how the story behind “Save the Last Dance for Me” provides too many specifics that interfere with how the song resonates with an individual. He criticizes music videos for the same reason (“we are locked into someone else’s messaging of the lyrics.”) He prizes imagination when it comes to songwriting too; in the Wall Street Journal piece, he attests that “Creative ability is about pulling old elements together and making something new, and I don’t believe silicon chips and passwords know anything about those elements, or where they are. You have to have a vivid imagination.” Relatedly, one can detect hostility to anything too systematized or scientific. In the “Black Magic Woman” essay, he mentions that “What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy … People can keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music … tells us time and again that one plus one, in the best circumstances, equals three.” At times, he sounds like another philosopher with a distaste for a scientific approach to music: Jean Jacques Rousseau (from Rousseau’s “On the Principle of Melody”: “Let us … not think that the empire Music has over our passions is ever explained by proportions and numbers”).
Dylan also has techniques for how he approaches his essays. The more informative sections can give way to speculations on alternative histories. He finds musing on these what-ifs edifying; it’s not at all incongruous with No Direction Home’s “I want a dog that’s going to collect and clean my bath!” (2005) or, more recently, his concoctions in “My Own Version of You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). In writing about pop music history, Gilbert Rodman points out that “one of the most difficult tricks in doing historical work is recapturing the sense of uncertainty that existed at some prior moment about what would happen next.” Inevitability applied ex post facto has a way of drying up and ossifying the telling of history; instead, the trick is to imbue old facts with a sense of surprise and discovery by taking away that retrospective inevitability and restoring a feeling of uncertainty as to how history might unfold. In this manner, Dylan likes to upend inevitabilities by highlighting alternatives: “You have to wonder, what if Sam had sent Elvis over to Luther’s house instead of to Scotty Moore’s? Scotty and Bill would then have been backing up Johnny Cash, and Luther and Marshall Grant would have been playing with Elvis.” More what-ifs include his speculations on Ricky Nelson’s lost acting opportunities in the “Poor Little Fool” essay. He also mentions alternative stories within the songs themselves, as with “Pancho and Lefty” (“In another life Pancho would’ve been in the bullring and Lefty on the Ryman country music stage.”)
To close: there’s no shortage of work to be done linking The Philosophy of Modern Song up with Dylan’s previous pronouncements on musical aesthetics, but also the wider firmament of musical philosophy in general (at times, it seems as if Dylan has set up his essays to be purposely anti-Adorno – in praising “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” he attests that “it follows no line, and one part can easily be replaced by another part.”) And Dylan is engaged in philosophy here, insofar as he’s doing what Sharpe views as part of analytical philosophy: “making us reflect upon unconsidered presuppositions; [which] may lead us to reflect on our lives and our values and cause us either to value things differently or perhaps more directly to alter our conduct.” Dylan throwing his weight behind these criteria counts, in other words, if, by doing so, he steers songwriters and critics towards them and away from others. From his observations, Dylan infers broader principles, suggests evaluative standards, and posits aesthetic verities. Quite apart from promoting any individual work, the book also venerates the medium of song and its ability to enrich our emotional lives through the deep, personal connections we form with their worldviews and sensibilities.
 Jeff Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A about “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022, https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-
 Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 11.
 Dylan, 41.
 Dylan, 154.
 Dylan, 153.
 Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 283.
 Dylan, 101.
 Dylan, 184.
 Simon Frith, ‘Pop Music’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 94–95.
 David Browne, ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’, Rolling Stone, 16 November 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-philosophy-of-modern-song-book-backlash-1234630949/.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 7–10, 159–61, 203.
 Lewis Eugene Rowell, Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 39.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 11, 17, 202.
 Dylan, 198.
 Dylan, 165.
 Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 312.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 79.
 Dylan, 275.
 Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.
 Keir Keightley, ‘Reconsidering Rock’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 137.
 Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 82.
 Dylan, 13.
 Dylan, 23.
 Dylan, 87.
 Dylan, 144, 334.
 Stephen Davies, ‘Rock versus Classical Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism vol. 57, no. 2 (1999): 199, https://doi.org/10.2307/432312.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 87, 201, 229.
 Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 229.
 The distaste is more apparent when one looks at Dylan’s other references to the Beatles of late, where he has been apt to view them in a jaundiced light. While I’m sure interpretations differ, I can’t help but hear the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” reference in “Murder Most Foul” as Dylan looking askance at the vaguely disingenuous, infantilising title (“Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand / The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand”). In the “London Calling” essay, he namechecks the song again, portraying the Beatles and their world as quaint and twee next to the real London as captured by the Clash. Once again, what’s faddish is superseded by the real and true.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 245.
 Dylan, 9.
 Dylan, 79.
 Dylan, 151.
 Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 275.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music, ed. and trans. John T. Scott, The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 7 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), 269–70.
 Gilbert B. Rodman, ‘Histories’, in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 44.
 Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 17.
 Dylan, 59.
 Adorno, conversely, criticised this characteristic of popular music, where musical elements could be shifted around without affecting the whole (“Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine”). See Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard D. Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 440.
 R. A. Sharpe, Philosophy of Music: An Introduction (Chesham: Acumen, 2004), 9.
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———. World Gone Wrong, Columbia – COL 474857 2, 1993, compact disc.
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