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Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song” Reviewed

But so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself,” Dylan.  

Everybody’s a rock critic. Some, of course, are better than others. John Mendelssohn, in reviewing Bob Dylan’s 1985 box set “Biograph” in Creem magazine quoted Bob Dylan as stating that modern music was “just fish hooks, fish hooks in the back of your neck.” Mendelssohn loved that phrase, or image, so much he stated it was better rock criticism than John, no slouch in the field, had ever written.  

Or consider his later take on Roy Orbison, “Orbison, though, transcended all the genres – folk, country, rock and roll or just about anything. His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn’t even been invented yet. He could sound mean and nasty on one line and then sing in a falsetto voice like Frankie Valli in the next. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business.” It’s clear that Dylan loves writing and thinking about music as much as he loves making it.  

In his new book “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” Bob is putting on his rock critic hat again. Stylistically, he’s more Nick Tosches than Lester Bangs, looking for grand themes, epic tales. He has penned essays on 66 songs, some that everyone knows (“Witchy Woman,” “Blue Bayou,” “Viva Las Vegas”) and some obscurities (Bing Crosby’s “Whiffenpoof Song,” John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore,” and Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady”). Serious pop music fans will immediately recognize most of the songs that Dylan dissects. The essays range in length from one paragraph to five or six pages.  

Dylan lives enough in the real world to occasionally nod at issues like production techniques, technology, chart success, sidemen, etc. However, Dylan the song mechanic, wants to explore the heart of the matter. He wants big emotions such as lost opportunities (Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City”), lost causes (Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass”), betrayal (Harry McClintock’s “Jesse James”), false choices (Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”), fatal choices (Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”; Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), unrequited love (Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me”), emotional exhaustion (John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore”), and death (Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin”). In describing the human condition, Bob concludes, “In a real sense the only thing that truly unites us is suffering and suffering only.”  

Dylan’s an old man now. He doesn’t have time for wandering pontifications. His laser focused mind can dig deeply and quickly into any subject involving popular music. He covers the waterfront – rock ‘n’ roll, country, rock, folk, pop, and bluegrass (“the other side of heavy metal”) all get their day in court. The British Invasion never happened in this tome. Perry Como and Vic Damone are as important as Elvis Costello and the Clash.  

In looking at the song selections by decade, twenty-eight were selected from the 1950s, during a time when pre-teen and teenage Bob would have been discovering the world beyond Hibbing, Minnesota via late night radio stations. The future icon was sponging up the lessons from country legends (“There’s really nobody that comes close to Hank Williams”) to pop stars like Bobby Darin. Dylan the musician understands what makes a song work from a technical standpoint and Dylan the listener understands what makes a song work from an emotional standpoint. This is why he has room in his heart for both Santana and Johnny Ray.  

There are all kinds of quotable quotes and even sidebar lists in this book and my only quibble is that consistently Dylan writes too much with a heightened sense of drama – like we live in a world with a mesmerizing harlot or a potential knife fight around every corner. Too often, in reality, we are simply dealing with utility bill payments and piles of dirty laundry. Dylan’s mind lives in a world of floods and famine, wars and betrayals, Greek tragedies and false idols.  

Still, this is a good book, if not a great one. The photos and artwork of the book have a retro feel, like a Norman Rockwall salute to vinyl and American pop culture. It brings back memories of a time when albums and singles brought people together, when music was a means of defining who you were, when records changed people’s lives. In describing the weird intersection between popular music and commerce, Dylan notes, “Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement.” I am sincerely thankful that Dylan has spent the past six decades giving us music and art and writings that we can all disagree about.  

Grade – A-  

“Detroit City”
(Bobby Bare)

“Pump It Up”
(Elvis Costello & the Attractions)

“Without a Song”
(Frank Sinatra)

“Take Me From This Garden of Evil”
(Jimmy Wages)

“There Stands the Glass”
(Webb Pierce)

“Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me”
(Billy Joe Shaver)

“Tutti Frutti”
(Little Richard)

“Money Honey”
(Elvis Presley)

“My Generation”
(The Who)

“Jesse James”
(Harry McClintock)

“Poor Little Fool”
(Ricky Nelson)

“Pancho and Lefty”
(Townes Van Zandt)

“The Pretender”
(Jackson Browne)

“Mack the Knife”
(Bobby Darin)

“The Whiffenpoof Song”
(Rudy Vallee)

“You Don’t Know Me”
(Ray Charles)

“Ball of Confusion”
(The Temptations)

“Poison Love”
(Johnnie & Jack)

“Beyond the Sea”
(Bobby Darin)

“On the Road Again”
(Willie Nelson)

“If You Don’t Know Me by Now”
(Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes)

“The Little White Cloud That Cried”
(Johnnie Ray)

“El Paso”
(Marty Robbins)

“Nelly Was a Lady”
(Stephen Foster)

“Cheaper to Keep Her”
(Johnnie Taylor)

“I Got a Woman”
(Ray Charles)

“CIA Man”
(The Fugs)

“On The Street Where You Live”
(From “My Fair Lady”)

“Truckin’”
(The Grateful Dead)

“Ruby, Are You Mad?”
(The Osborne Brothers)

“Old Violin”
(Johnny Paycheck)

“Volare”
(Domenico Modugno)

“London Calling”
(The Clash)

“Your Cheatin’ Heart”
(Hank Williams)

“Blue Bayou”
(Roy Orbison)

“Midnight Rider”
(The Allman Brothers Band)

“Blue Suede Shoes”
(Carl Perkins)

“My Prayer”
(The Platters)

“Dirty Life and Times”
(Warren Zevon)

“Doesn’t Hurt Anymore”
(Regina Belle)

“Key to the Highway”
(Little Walter)

“Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”
(Mose Allison)

“War”
(Edwin Starr)

“Big River”
(Johnny Cash)

“Feel So Good”
(Shirley & Lee)

“Blue Moon”
(Elvis Presley)

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves”
(Cher)

“Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy”
(Uncle Dave Macon)

“It’s All in the Game”
(Tommy Edwards)

“A Certain Girl”
(Ernie K-Doe)

“I’ve Always Been Crazy”
(Waylon Jennings)

“Witchy Woman”
(Eagles)

“Big Boss Man”
(Jimmy Reed)

“Long Tall Sally”
(Little Richard)

“Old and Only in the Way”
(Charlie Poole)

“Black Magic Woman”
(Santana)

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
(Glen Campbell)

“Come On-a My House”
(Rosemary Clooney)

“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”
(Johnny Cash)

“Come Rain or Come Shine”
(Ray Charles)

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
(Nina Simone)

“Strangers in the Night”
(Frank Sinatra)

“Viva Las Vegas”
(Elvis Presley)

“Saturday Night at the Movies”
(The Drifters)

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”
(Pete Seeger)

“Where or When”
(Dion and the Belmonts)

2 Comments

  1. Feriel lu lababedi on November 8, 2022 at 10:05 am

    I agree with most of what you said particularly about life being really a out unity books and dirty laundry a most interesting review

    • admin on November 8, 2022 at 10:07 am

      it was written by Steve Crawford -IL

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