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

Well, it looks like there’s one more Bob Dylan book I’m never going to read all the way through. As far as I recall, Dylan’s own Chronicles: Volume One and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street are the only Dylan-related books I’ve ever managed to complete or would want to read again. (Dylan himself may have started this unreadable trend, with his callow 1971 folly, Tarantula.)

So what is this great slab of a thing? A serious thesis, as indicated by its title? Some kind of sneaky autobiography undercover—Chronicles: Volume Two—wearing a ho-ho-ho mask and carrying a big Christmas stocking full of treats? Is it the hymn book of Dylan’s musical faith, full of unlikely household gods? Or is it just a handy present for dads everywhere to dip into on Boxing Day? (Also published this year in the run-up to Christmas: Quentin Tarantino on his favorite movies, and Patti Smith’s book of holy Instagrams.)

The Philosophy of Modern Song is essentially a written version of Dylan’s satellite radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, which aired from 2006 to 2009. In the new book, Dylan plays 60-some 45s on his home jukebox and tells us what personal associations each provokes in him. For most of the tracks, he also supplies some background information, including who wrote the song and sang it and how it chimed with its historical moment. Some of these fact-sheet bits are informative and eye-opening. I wasn’t familiar with Pete Seeger’s 1967 protest song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” and Dylan is great on its background and battles and afterlife. Elsewhere, he paints, using just a handful of lines, a revealing portrait of the doomed singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. But Dylan’s comments in too many other entries feel ad hoc and bizarrely personal, leaves from the pillow book of a grumpy old man.

In a few places, he gives us lists of songs about certain subjects, just as he did on Theme Time Radio Hour: songs about tears, songs about fools, songs based on classical melodies, songs about shoes. Theme Time had buckets of charm and was a genuinely immersive experience. Its playlists ranged far and wide—alongside all the old country blues, it also found a place for then-new imps like Blur. The problem with Dylan’s Philosophy is that it feels way too preoccupied by the past—certainly too much to earn that “modern” in its title. The selection of tracks feels at times like one of those macho “drivin’ music” compilations: the Allman Brothers, the Who, the Clash, the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.

Of its 66 songs, only four are by women, and you have to wait until Chapter 47 until a single gal features. Either as political misstep or structural flaw, this seems egregious. Even looking beyond personal aesthetic bias, I don’t see how you can assemble a meditation on postwar popular song with no Bessie Smith, no Billie Holiday, no Dolly Parton. The book features 15 country songs—no women; four blues songs—no women; six singer-songwriters—no women; seven soul songs and—oh look, here’s Nina Simone! But then you read the actual entry (on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”), and in five pages of text she gets one line. The rest of the entry considers a vast range of blokes, literally starting with Adam, and then taking in Raphael, Gabriel, Albert Camus, a French scholar named Henri Estienne, L.L. Zamenhof (the creator of Esperanto), William S. Burroughs, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Christopher Craig, Derek Bentley, Théodore Géricault, Banksy, Mark Rothko, and John Lennon. (The accompanying image is—who else?—Bugsy Siegel.) Likewise, the entry on Judy Garland is all but Judy-free. Once you notice this imbalance, it’s impossible to un-notice it. After a while, it feels less like laziness than some obscure point being deliberately, if slyly, made.

The book’s design is busy, retro, and kitsch. (If, like me, you suffer from visual migraines you might want to read carefully.) A song by the Eagles gets pictures of eagles. A 1956 country song, “Ruby, Are You Mad?” gets a picture of Jack Ruby. The cover image, though eye-catching, is a bit of a poser: it’s a photo, taken in 1957 (on an Australian tour), of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley, a rockabilly singer marketed as the “female Elvis.” Little Richard is an obvious choice (he features twice in the book, and was someone, often torn, like Dylan, between rock and religion) but why the little-known (and still-living) Lesley? It seems of a piece with the book’s clumsy treatment of women that Lesley, the cover’s magnetic centerpiece, is not even named, never mind referenced, anywhere in the text. The image was probably selected to exemplify a certain starburst moment—postwar, but pre-sixties—when everything felt on the cusp and up for grabs; when wired rockabilly, transitional rock and roll, smooth chart pop, and mainstream showbiz occupied the same hopeful spotlight.

Many of the book’s photos reflect this moment. We get images galore of old record shops, old microphones, and old vinyl pressing plants. Dylan’s own language is heavily imagistic: he presents many of the songs as if they were scenes from favorite old movies. Time and again, my mind returned to his role as Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. (Garrett: “Who are you?” Alias: “That’s a good question.”) Dylan romanticizes a certain stripe of mangy outlaw or flinty nomad or scurvy saddle tramp—the wilderness preferred to the homestead. Of course, Dylan isn’t the only performer to have fallen for such bleary roleplaying. The Eagles were not real desperadoes. Many of the artists featured in Philosophy worked a golden seam of camp, exaggeration, and giddy drama. With Dylan, however, it’s become virtually impossible to separate mask from face, role from real life, ringmaster from act. He sings and disports himself these days like a refugee from a world of hobos and steam trains, carnies and tent shows. And he does this not just for a one-off photo session, but all the time.

It’s as if Dylan set out to become a version of the Country and Western pioneer Uncle Dave Macon, a character he first encountered on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with a cornucopia of song, and a yarn for every occasion. It’s in this simulation of an “old-timey” voice that the book is largely written—if “written” is quite the word. It feels more like a script, made to be spoken. It’s the voice of someone sitting on the steps of a small-town general store, offering corny little gems of unvarnished wisdom, whether you asked for them or not. Uncle Bob’s cracker barrel! Very different from the taut, gently involving economy of Chronicles, Philosophy is rambling, slapdash, and conversational. You might call the writing, if you were being kind, stream of consciousness; you might also call it a “thesaurus-to-hand” kind of writing. Why use one adjective when you can use four or five! A more forthright editor might have alleviated some of these flaws. My first reaction was to wonder if Chronicles and Philosophy had different editors; and then to wonder if the new book had an editor at all. This is how Dylan opens Chapter 4, on a song called “Take Me From The Garden of Evil”: “What you’d like to see is a neighborly face, a lovely charming face. Someone on the up and up, a straight shooter, ethical and fit. Someone in an attractive place, hospitable, a hole in the wall, a honky-tonk with home cooking.”

The book goes on in this vein: “Get you away from the gangsters and psychopaths, this menagerie of wimps and yellow-bellies. You want to be emancipated from all the hokum . . . you want to get beyond the borderlands and you’ve been ruminating too long.” Some readers will find charm in this voice; I found it overripe, and unbearably hokey. I wanted to be emancipated from all the hokum. In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town, comes on like a dull-witted everyman but deliberately torments everyone around him with an unending stream of cliches and platitudes. That’s how reading Dylan’s Philosophy felt to me. The lingo is deliberately anachronistic, pegged to a certain era, or at least to Dylan’s rosy idea of it: “white snow cotton fields . . . your old pappy . . . a bigwig . . . looking for a pot of gold.” After a handful of chapters, it felt like self-parody.

Dylan is very good on what he can see (or hear) right in front of him—the grain of a favorite song—but is blind to the wider horizon’s curl. There are a few key absences, and a few overstressed hobbyhorses. Dylan, perhaps unsurprisingly, favors a certain kind of roving male troubadour. So we get bearded guys with guitars aplenty. Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia—but no Neil Young or Kurt Cobain. No doo wop. We hear about a few sides of classic soul, but nothing from the 1970s soul renaissance, so no “Backstabbers” or “Superstition” or “Inner City Blues.” We find Johnny Ray but no Smokey Robinson. Bing Crosby but no Billie Holiday. Loads of country dudes having a moan on the range but no Mother Maybelle Carter or “I Fall to Pieces” or “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”

All of which would be okay; this would be a forgivably personal list we could all argue about. Except: what about that title? If the book was called Bob Dylan’s Stuff I Like or American Road Trip or even My Philosophy of Song—no problem. Anything but the title he plumped for, which is about as unsuited to the actual text as it could be. The use of the word modern is, at the very least, disputable. The most recent song here is something by the late Warren Zevon, who (whatever your opinion—and I’m a fan) arguably fits too snugly into Dylan’s solo-male singer-songwriter paradigm. You think of all the incredible postwar female artists he could have chosen from, and the most “modern” example he offers is a so-so Cher single from 1971.

The book jacket rolls out the portentous word “essays”—but that’s not right. Dylan’s reflections tend to be brief yet baggy. How much you like the book will be determined by how partial you are to his form of exegesis. As far as an actual “philosophy” of modern song, there’s nothing explicit presented; we’re left to join the dots ourselves. He treats songs like Rorschach blots, sparking him to riff and free associate. These are “readings” the way you read last night’s dream residue. Imagine the Tarot redrawn as an American cinematic landscape, with noir alleys, John Ford valleys, W.C. Fields small-town dreams, and a malevolent preacher prowling a river bank, and you get a sense of The Philosophy of Modern Song.

Do some counting, and you find that country & western, clocking in at 15 entries, is Dylan’s go-to musical idiom—and not new-fangled young-people Americana, no way, no how. This is old-school, a-man’s-gotta-do-it country, made by big granite geezers named Johnny. A visiting alien might come away from the book thinking that the greatest modern song ever recorded is “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins. Dylan goes into dithyrambs of purple praise, making it sound like the chart-music equivalent of the apocalyptic closing scenes of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Gunslinger cliches and end-time revelation:

This is a ballad of the tortured soul, the cowboy heretic, prince of the protestants. . . . This is Moloch, the cat’s eye pyramid, the underbelly of beauty, where you take away the bottom number and the others fall. The cowboy chosen one, bloody mass sacrifice, Jews of the Holocaust, Christ in the temple, the blood of Aztecs up on the altar. . . . This is mankind created in the image of a jealous godhead. This is fatherhood, the devil god, and the golden calf—the godly man, a jealous human being. This mode of life is an all-confrontational mode of life. . . . This is a song of genocide . . . nuclear war, ground zero.

Marty Robbins was known to be very right-wing, indeed. After Columbia (Dylan’s label) rejected some of Robbins’s more ideologically robust songs, a member of his backing band re-recorded them under the name “Johnny Freedom.” It’s probably safe to say that Dylan’s own politics are broadly what you’d call small “c” conservative, harking back to simpler times and small-town values. A past where there are no extremists heckling each other on Main Street, and the world is somehow both safer and more exciting. The good aspect of such nostalgia lies in Dylan’s sincere impulse to keep old traditions alive; what may be less noble is how that tends to idealize a long-ago time, redacting all political complexity.

That summary probably does service for both the 81-year-old Dylan’s view of life and his ideas about art. (His paintings are unabashedly figurative and old-fashioned.) Philosophy offers definite signs of what we might term sonic conservatism. He favors simple songs that tell a story, proper music made on proper instruments by mature adults. If a capsule “philosophy” of song is evident in the book, one can glimpse it in lines like this: “Nothing artificial about this song, nothing manufactured or contrived about it. Nothing cosmetic or plastic here.” He loves how certain songs paint pictures in sound but is sniffy about the modern recording studio. In biographies of Dylan, this is a vexed and recurring theme. He has at best an ambivalent relationship with the studio and the whole process of recording. He seems to regard it as not quite natural.

I was delighted to see Dylan unafraid to valorize “middle of the road” classics like “Without A Song,” by Perry Como, and “Strangers In The Night,” by Frank Sinatra. On closer inspection, the songs are posed as if the work of one man—a self-contained loner, standing on a stage. Dylan doesn’t want to entertain the idea of MOR as a sublimely artificial confection, watered and grown in the hothouse studio, or acknowledge the role of brilliant arranger-producers like Nelson Riddle. Bing Crosby is included for “The Whiffenpoof Song,” but there’s no mention of his game-changing work on microphone technology and audio recording techniques. As I write, my own background music is the breathily intimate jazz-pop of Stan Getz and Antonio Carlos Jobim—nothing even vaguely like it appears in Dylan’s log of “modern song.” Dylan is obviously fired up by the crucible genius of Sam Phillips in Memphis’s Sun studios, and properly in awe of Motown, but still only grudgingly acknowledges that any of his favorites was conceived in a recording studio.

Rap is a line in the sand. Dylan mentions Jay Z and Biggie Smalls in an early aside, so he knows that it exists. (And he did play an LL Cool J track on one of his radio shows.) Maybe rap doesn’t sound anything like proper, old-fashioned song to his wrinkly ears. Still, you’d think he might appreciate some of its outlier history. What is more street-corner kick-start and unvarnished than early rap? Also, one could imagine him digging its games of assertion and boast, its overlap of real-life illegality and managed persona. The crucial difference with every other song in the book is that they’re all things Bob Dylan might conceivably cover. Rap, not so much; he can’t “sample” that particular dish. Even though voice is central to its aesthetic, Rap doesn’t sit snugly enough inside Dylan’s self-styled tradition. It may also fall the wrong side of his sonic conservatism.

The book has drawn fire in some quarters for its perceived reactionary attitudes, especially as regards women. The blooper that jumped out at me was this, from his chapter on Native American poet and activist John Trudell: “People who go on nonstop about civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights and on and on need to take a look at what America has done to the people who were here from the beginning.” This is the opposite of a “point well made.” It recalls Dylan’s tone-deaf comments from the stage at Live Aid in 1985, when he wondered out loud to a global audience of 1.9 billion why they didn’t take “some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa” and use it to help American farmers. In both cases, the comment isn’t necessarily wrongheaded. What is wrong is how it was raised, via a certain kind of puffed-up rock star pronouncement, coming across as arrogant and myopic.

Still, there are reasons why Dylan lately attracts so much good will and celebration. His audience no longer seems wholly comprised of Men of A Certain Age. Judging by recent social media, he has fans of every age, across the political compass. It’s good that people are finally treating him not as an enigmatic prophet but as just a working musician, having fun again. (Granted: publishing a book with “philosophy” in the title is probably not the best way to get people to stop treating you like a philosopher manqué.) The notion you get from the better biographies and some of Dylan’s rare interviews is of an ordinary guy, baffled by the things expected or believed of him. In the 2006 film, Masked and Anonymous, his auto-fictive character Jack Fate makes clear that he “was always a singer and maybe no more than that” and had “stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”

How about this: Bob Dylan isn’t real. “Bob Dylan” is a made-up character, comprised of a flickering series of dreams and rigs and roles. The Troubadour. The Preacher. The Bluesman. The Folkie. The Existential Cowboy. Check out the “Cold Irons Bound” video, where Dylan and his band stand before this outsize legend: VAUDEVILLE. Dylan is gussied up in a ten-gallon hat, rockabilly duds, riverboat gambler’s pencil mustache, and bolo tie. He couldn’t make it any more explicit that he’s posing inside a happy reverie.

At some point in the 1980s, being Bob Dylan became a puzzle to him. He’d become a wraith in his own life. He’d lost the key to the music box. Religion turned out not to be the solution he hoped. Hiring on-trend new producers didn’t work, either. What did finally work was rediscovering the joy and wonder of music again, through old American songs. He was back in the mountains, with that “high lonesome” sound, back when he first heard all the strange and alluring voices on Harry Smith’s Anthology. When he recorded two albums of covers (1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong), something seems to have unknotted in his soul. From that point on, his ideal song was infused with the yeasty aromas of the past, with enough space to accommodate a playful or crestfallen contemporary “I.” And maybe it’s right here that he found the core lesson of “modern song”: it can be both deeply personal and utterly anonymous. The minute you open your mouth to sing a song to an unspecific “you,” the whole world can listen in and dream along.

Consider the image on the book’s back cover of an old-time record emporium, and its own triptych of images: Big Joe Turner, Billie Holiday, and Kid Ory. Three wildly different performers, but they had one thing in common: they all used stage names. It’s often been the case that the most “authentic” acts were precisely that—acts with more than a little stardust mystique rigged up beyond the stage-door threshold. Certain performers need the protection of a persona they can don and discard—especially those whose audience has come to expect heart-baring authenticity every night of the week, for years on end. Surely an impossible dream.

At one point in Philosophy, Dylan, with a straight face, discusses performers who changed their name for showbiz leverage. Little Richard was born Richard Penniman. Vic Damone was baptized Vito Rocco Farinola. Johnny Paycheck, outlaw country and western icon, began life as Donald Eugene Lytle and was occasionally known as Donny Young. White-knuckle punky firebrands Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer? Declan Patrick MacManus and John Graham Mellor. In that revealingly titled film Masked and Anonymous, we get the spectacle of . . . Robert Zimmerman performing as Bob Dylan writing as Sergei Petrov playing a Bob Dylan-esque singer-songwriter called Jack Fate. (Dylan produced all his recent albums under the pseudonym Jack Frost.) It begins to seem like an algebra of nondisclosure, or dolls within dolls.

Joni Mitchell, in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, expressed doubts about the cherished idea of a truth-telling Dylan. “Bob is not authentic at all,” she said. “Everything about Bob is a deception.” Take Theme Time Radio Hour, which the book seems to have used as a blueprint. Its feeling of intimacy and spontaneity was, in fact, a carefully scripted and edited fake, right down to the calls and emails from listeners. Again: the paradox of a studio-hating Dylan who actually relies heavily on the whole process. What seems at first to be a confiding voice is a performed intimacy. (The current scandal over his use of an autopen for what fans thought were personally signed, luxury-priced editions of the new book somehow seems of a piece with all this.)

Dylan’s recent work may give the impression of something deeply “roots” oriented and past-referencing, but it is actually intensely postmodern—he’s just not the kind of artist we tend to think of as such. All his work from “Love and Theft” (those quotation marks!) on may be the ultimate po-mo ruse, a bonfire of borrowed lines, invented personae, simulation, and collage. The latest (and 17th) release in his official Bootleg Series (a five-CD redux of 1997’s Time Out of Mind), is even called Fragments. On the one hand, Dylan poses as a simple troubadour; on the other, it’s as if each album, even each song, has an infinite number of versions we might one day be privy to.

So, does Dylan’s “borrowing” of word and style and voice actually honor the lives and work of those who went before? It’s arguable. At times, if you squint, everything in Dylan World can seem a bit kitschy and brittle. (He gets Columbia to revive their classic label look for his recent work! He turns up on an episode of Pawn Stars! He does a lingerie ad! He does fun videos for some of his songs!) If we use Dylan himself as our example, we should just sit back and enjoy the shifting signs and not worry if any of it contains deeply personal and significant meaning. He’s the masked man, the jongleur, the joker man, the master of revels. And at its best, such role-playing enables him to access a genuinely communal voice, an American refrain that feels nonpartisan at a time when America itself feels terminally riven. The other, less noble side of the equation lets Dylan shrug off accountability: Oh no, these aren’t accounts of his life, or his emotions, or his world. Thus, he absents himself from the general civic contract. He can ignore all the political changes that have occurred between his idealized past and the fractious, disputatious now. And none of his legion of fans, old or new, seems that troubled by any of this. He is the ultimate anti-cancel man.

Who is the real Bob behind the mask? Wizard or con artist, genius or grifter? The performance has been durably fascinating—except now, in his book of Philosophy, we can maybe start to make out the joins, the make-up and wig glue and backstage ropes. I’ve found Bob’s Dylan act bewitching in the past, across at least three or four iterations. This time, its charm missed me by a country mile.

Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next