The Philosophy of Modern Song, by Bob Dylan: A Completely Grounded, Completely Incomplete Response
Lars Rosager, MA
March 24, 2023
Let it be known: the present text is no derision. It’s not exactly a critique, but more accurately the seedlings toward an analysis of the content of Dylan’s book vis-à-vis its presentation. The result is instructive in that it points to a definition of what exactly holds value for a musician of Dylan’s fame and commercial stature, and to a notion of what musical artists today must navigate in terms of craft and reception.
First off, the title of the book. Philosophy in the sense of a theoretical foundation, as in the Philosophy of Science or the Philosophy of Economics? Philosophy as foundational knowledge, explained by true reasoning? Taken at his word, Dylan is offering concrete information on what goes/has gone into the genesis (or performance, or promotion) of popular songs, presumably since the advent of Rock and Roll or thereabouts. The reader is intrigued by learning more about the intentions of the artists, perhaps about what these well-known tunes have in common. To an MA in Music like me, this title was inviting in the sense that I predicted nuts and bolts on an artform known for its ability to evade uniformity and ignore the sort of top-down processes often associated with more traditional, Classical, or conservatively heritage-minded musics.
The inside front cover did not change my initial hope or expectation. Here we look forward to “a master class on the art and craft of songwriting.” It is a curious fact that these two brief paragraphs on the inside front cover, the only introduction offered to the reader before Dylan launches into his commentary, are notably altered in the description of the book on Amazon, where instead of offering a master class, Dylan shares “his extraordinary insight into the nature of popular music.” Perhaps someone else thought the other version a little misleading too.
So the reader begins to discover what this book really is. At this point, I was still looking for advice on the compositional process, so some sort of confirmation bias drew my attention to Dylan’s emphasis on the poetic image. In other words, the reader enjoys an elaboration by a celebrated songwriter on what a given track illustrates, on the words and the journey on which they take the listener. The first section of chapter 1 consists of a prose addendum to the poetic image of “Detroit City,” by Bobby Bare (written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis). In a little over a page, Dylan digs beneath the surface of the lyrics and drives the sentiment home. Many other chapters begin in a similar fashion.
Next in chapter 1 comes some historical context and biographical information on the performer, within which passages appears one technical detail: “What is it about lapsing into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” Then the chapter closes, but not before an assumption on what the listener is perceiving. Philosophy aside, I would say one could be forgiven for asking, “Is this really about art as such? Or about some paisley internal musing on a playlist of favorites?” It’s hard to describe. All things considered, the title of the book is perhaps not so much deceiving as it is ironic or intentionally misworded. Perhaps the point is that modern song is incompatible with philosophy, or is somehow inherently resistant to the methodical thinking upon which philosophy depends.
Chapter 2 advises, “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” And then we have, “Torture her and talk to her, bought for her, temperature, was a rhyming scheme long before Biggie Smalls or Jay Z. Submission and transmission, pressure pin and other sin, just rattled through this song. It’s relentless, as all of his songs from this period are.” This is instructive. We get some sense of cause and effect, from the words and their organization to the impact on an audience.
In chapter 3, we learn tangentially that stretching one syllable over too many notes carries the risk of sounding forced. The syllable may “spread itself thin.” And we learn, “Few songs become popular but the ones that do we can’t seem to do without.” It is a short chapter.
Another question presents itself, that of modernity and who defines it. The previous generation was like this, the current one is like that, or an apparent innovation was actually invented by so-and-so fifty years ago … but I don’t think Dylan is saying his list of modern songs—in large part from the mid twentieth century—are juicier or more real than what is being released today. In fact, he seems to approach pretty fairly and justly certain questions of generational mindset and intergenerational exchange. Nonetheless, I must submit that the book perpetuates an interesting strain of ignorance.
For more than a few people, music today is not just a sonic phenomenon. Along with sound—but not necessarily illustrated by it—exists a web of social endeavor, sex, pop-culture gossip, inspiring life stories, politics and protest, awards, sales numbers, festival fun, party fun … which I have no problem with really. And yet, I can’t help but take issue with the proposition that an applicable creative command of music—not just in a commercial sense but also/rather in terms of substance and authenticity—stems precisely from avoiding the examination of real devices.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is almost anti-technical. Without taking away from what the book attempts to illustrate, the mentions of creative devices strike me as vague, or just indicated but not unpacked. I am willing to stand corrected, especially as I will admit not having read the book in its entirety. A reading of the first seven of sixty-six chapters informs my assessment, plus some less A-to-Z examination of later sections, where I continued to encounter a similar ratio of ethos to concrete technique.
One of these fast-forwards landed me in Dylan’s chapter on “Black Magic Woman,” by Santana. From what my experience with the book had taught me so far, the passage at hand was entirely representative of the text as a whole. It states unequivocally that “one place where additional learning does not disentangle the mystery of the subject is music.” I respect that. Later, ones reads, “E. B. White had a saying about humor that seems applicable to music: Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” The fear is that the “joy of discovery” is diminished by study of technical elements. Discussing the art of joining words to music, Dylan has posited as a primary goal the ability to transcend craft. He expressly brushes aside hammer-ons (although this refers to a particular fretting-hand technique, one assumes this term here encompasses almost any detail of guitar playing), and likewise all but dismisses transposition, mode, and categorization of rhythmic styling, calling them “folderol,” meaning trivial and nonsensical fuss.
I reiterate my willingness to be wrong about this, but am concurrently tempted to conclude that the core lesson of The Philosophy of Modern Song is that the alchemical, miraculous nature of popular musical stylings remains basically at odds with any analytical or how-to summarization. I appreciate the book as a liberated and inclusive portrait of popular music in U.S. society, and am confident it includes a lot of instructive material for songwriters, should one drill down on the brief allusions. Nonetheless, those musicians serious about the creative process need to avoid the trap of an exalted spirit that lacks explicable form. Soul, vibe, feel—these are all just words if not for an understanding of, and command over, that by which they may be brought into a sensory space.