The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan is published today. It is his first book since the acclaimed Chronicles, Volume One was published in 2014 and since then Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. So expectations for his new tome are high.
The Philosophy of Modern Song does not disappoint. Comprising of 66 essays, Dylan riffs on popular songs from the last century. Reading the book is like being able to hear with his ears. He explains the stories songs are based on, the impressions they inspire.
The prose is very Dylan. It’s full of fantastic phrasing, surprises, misdirection. But above all it’s a celebration of music Dylan loves. Some songs are well known standards like Volare, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Black Magic Women, Strangers In The Night – others are forgotten classics sure to be resurrected by Dylan shining the spotlight on them.
Music brings together all the biggest issues in the world, from love to death, war and religion and Dylan gives glimpses of his own philosophy throughout.
Here are just a few examples of his wit and wisdom.
Lessons from The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan likes donuts
Before the book begins, there’s an example of Dylan playing the jester. The Philosophy of Modern Song is dedicated to legendary Tin Pan Alley songwriter Doc Pomus, but a special thanks also goes to “all the crew at Dunkin’ Donuts”.
The one and only Dylan reference
In a book profiling 66 of the greatest songs ever sung, there’s only one passing reference to one of Bob Dylan’s own. Writing about Elis Costello’s Pump It Up, Dylan comments: “[Costello] obviously had been listening to Springsteen too much. But he also had a heavy dose of Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Money never changed a thing
Dylan digs into financial matters while writing about Elvis Presley’s Money Honey, coming to this conclusion: “…Ultimately money doesn’t matter. Nor do the things it can buy. Because no matter how many chairs you have, you only have one ass.”
Bob Dylan’s Never Ending tour explained
Bob Dylan played over 3,000 shows on the so-called Never Ending Tour between 1988 and the pandemic. At 81, he’s still on the road (and I’ll be going to see him tonight in Glasgow right after I schedule this article!) and in the book he explains the appeal of touring. Writing about Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again, he says:
“There’s another song to be written about the real reason you can’t wait to get on the road again. Nobody’s mad because you didn’t take the garbage out, acquaintances don’t just drop in unannounced, neighbors don’t give you the stink-eye every time the wind shifts.
“The thing about being on the road is that you’re not bogged down by anything. Not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people and you keep the grief to yourself.”
The pro-polygamy argument
In an eye-opening – likely tongue-in-cheek – passage, Bob Dylan promotes polygamy. It’s related to Johnnie Taylor’s song Cheaper To Keep Her that takes in destructive lawyers and equality. Dylan writes: “Mixed marriages, gay marriages – proponents have rightly lobbied to make all of these legal but no one has fought for the only one that really counts, the polygamist marriage.”
He continues: “You can almost hear the gnashing of teeth and snarls from the crusaders and lobbyists” before adding that it shouldn’t only apply to men marrying multiple women: “Have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break”.
Some advice for those who don’t think America is as great as they imagine it once was. “If you want to hear a political record play this one,” Dylan says about Feel So Good by Sonny Burgess. “If you’re wondering what happened to the late, great country you grew up with or how you can make America great again perhaps this record can give you some idea.”
Continuing to address some of the problems that plague contemporary society, Dylan writes about how the echo chambers we surround ourselves with are damaging society.
“Turns out, the best way to shut people up isn’t to take away their forum – it’s to give them all their own separate pulpits,” he says. “Ultimately most folks will listen to what they already know and read what they already agree with. They will devour pale retreads of the familiar and perhaps never get to discover they might have a taste for Shakespeare or flamenco dancing.
“It’s the equivalent of letting an eight-year-old pick their own diet.”