Book Review: “Philosophy of Modern Song” by Bob Dylan

By Scott McLennan

The goal of Bob Dylan’s project is emotional rather than definitive: to probe the power of song to influence us, make us feel and ultimately transform us.

The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan. Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $45.

If you’ve ever wanted to discuss music with Bob Dylan, his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song give you the chance.

Dylan serves up essays on 66 songs, each piece sparking conversation the kind you might imagine hearing in the aisles of a record store packed with vinyl or at the bar of a nightclub that keeps a little stage in the corner at the benefit local musicians and the people who love him still live.

This effort is by no means Dylan’s catalog of what he thinks are undeniably great songs. Instead, The Philosophy of Modern Song is a ride through tunes that Dylan loves for all sorts of reasons. The purpose of the project is emotional rather than definitive: to probe the power of song to influence us, make us feel and ultimately transform us.

The essays vary in length and intensity: the 340 pages of the book are filled with relevant photos and graphics with a speculative mood.

Of course, a book like this, written by a songwriter who inspired a cottage industry devoted to analyzing his work and life, will directly feed that bloated industry: what does Dylan offer on himself when commenting on other songs? Criticism as a form of autobiography.

Ironically, beginning with the opening piece on Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” and throughout the rest of the book, Dylan goes against the conventional notion that art is inevitably autobiographical. When it comes to songs, the reception and reaction of the listener is much more important to him.

And boy, does he have some interesting receptions and reactions to the songs he chose to write about.

Dylan imagines the narrator of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” to be a veteran who has been mentally and physically ravaged by his combat experiences. There’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest that, but Dylan lets the song take its mind in that direction. He imagines who that person might be, staring at a glass of whiskey that promises to ease his pain and take away his memories. The essay also splits into a parallel discussion of the creation of the flamboyant Nudie costume and its significance in country music. On the one hand, you can’t help but wonder how Dylan came to these conclusions. But you’re grateful because they encourage the book’s electrifying prose sections.

At 81, Dylan remains an arch-dissident critic of his surroundings, sounding no less defiant than on his early albums that served as beacons for other restless thinkers, activists and artists who turned to his work in the ’60s. But it’s a Dylan who’s gone from admonishing 1963’s ‘Masters of War’ to delivering a glowing list of military generals who ‘paved the way for Presley to sing / blazed the way for Martin Luther King’. in 2021’s “Mother of Muses.”

Bob Dylan is not an angry old man. Photo: David Gahr

By no means did Dylan just become an angry old man feasting on Fox News all day. However, his speech and outlook are firmly rooted in an admiration for music that emerged between 1950 and 1970. Throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song Dylan laments the cultural and intellectual decline of America from this period. “It’s the sound that made America great,” Dylan enthuses about the urgency heard in Sun Records’ early singles. He plays with today’s political vernacular again when he writes in an essay triggered by “Saturday Night at the Movies” (which doesn’t deal with that Drifters song at all) that “People keep talking about make America great. Maybe they should start with the movies.

Dylan strongly challenges political correctness, extreme conservatism, and the ease with which a song or movie is decontextualized and demonized. In Dylan’s eyes, the result sanitizes our cultural conversation. The purpose of well-meaning muzzling may be to create a harmonious society, but putting such boundaries in place ends up shutting down the kind of invaluable critical thinking that dares to challenge authority.

Dylan explains how Pete Seeger’s ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an acerbic critique of the Vietnam War, found a large following because he performed it on the Brothers chokes Television variety show at a time when “variety” meant exposing different types of art and entertainment to mass audiences from all income levels.

Today, people are encouraged to gravitate to their own self-proclaimed tastes and beliefs. There is no longer any thirst to be confronted with the unknown, the unknown, the possible confrontation. Dylan ostensibly argues that it “turns out that the best way to shut people up isn’t to take away their forum – it’s to give them all their own separate pulpits”.

Dylan is the most acerbic in an essay that ostensibly focuses on the “Cheaper to Keep Her” sung by Johnny Taylor. He immediately veers into a screed about divorce lawyers that’s filled with standard male chauvinist tropes. Dylan assesses the criticism he anticipates for his opinions and doubles down on the patriarchal taunts. In other parts of the book, Dylan’s anger, disgust, and disappointment spawn provocative observations and opinions you may or may not agree with, but at least reasonably consider. In “Cheaper to Keep Her,” Dylan’s take is just plain ugly.

Irrational ramblings aside, Dylan can be erudite and passionate in digging into the mechanics of the songs he writes about. He makes many astute observations, such as how The Who’s primal “My Generation” contains the seeds of great rock opera themes. tommy. Or how The Clash, singing about building a house by the river, strikes a universal chord of dissatisfaction – among those who see the Thames from their window and those who live near the Mississippi. Both yearn to escape the bullshit raining down on them.

Still, Dylan cautions against over-analyzing songs to the point of neutralizing their artistic force. It celebrates the mystery of a masterful song, when the right words are combined with the right music. There is no predictable way to achieve this – which is why you can only admire and learn from those who have succeeded.

The Fugs — Dylan prefers The Fugs’ raunchy proto-punk “CIA Man” to Johnny Rivers’ catchy, shrewd “Secret Agent Man.”

Dylan, unsurprisingly, favors sincerity and authenticity over politeness and precision. He much prefers the Fugs’ steamy proto-punk “CIA Man” to Johnny Rivers’ catchy and shrewd “Secret Agent Man.”

Sometimes, as with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” it’s about bringing all the elements together, including the performance. The chemistry of this writer’s work meeting those voice in this production — these elementary ingredients, on this occasion, create the monumental.

A veteran of contest music, Dylan cites The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” as examples of how similar critiques can be effective in completely different ways. The Temptations’ frenzy and Mose’s perplexity are equally effective in provoking outrage.

Dylan reflects on the importance of nailing arrangements. He contrasts the complexities of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” with the predictability of Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” – and sees that both have equal value. Dylan considers the skills of particular singers (big fan of Ricky Nelson and Bobby Darin) as well as the archetypes we identify with (outlaws, we love; criminals, not so much. And everyone loves a jerk). He also goes into all sorts of detail as to why a certain song leaves a lasting impression. For example, in shoe song cataloging, “Blue Suede Shoes” reigns supreme for so many reasons.

Dylan U, if you choose to enroll, offers classes in sociology, history, political science, religion, language, economics, psychology, and geography. And the course, aside from the downward slides into misogyny, is humorous, expansive, and informative. Dylan authoritatively throws out controversial assessments and analyzes here, but he invites agreement on just about everything. Aside from a shared understanding that, for our survival, songs are as important as air. If you don’t agree, you don’t deserve either.


Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the boston globe, Journal of Providence, Portland Press Heraldand WGBH, as well as artistic fuse. He also ran the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.