“He took speaking in tongues right out of the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio — even screamed like a holy preacher — which is what he was.”
Bob Dylan poses for a portrait in October 1983, Los Angeles. Photo: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images
Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential Songs
In his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists. / BY Andrew Wright / November 2nd, 2022
Almost exactly 18 years after publishing his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan still has a lot to say.
The 81-year-old musician, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” has turned his critical lens outward with The Philosophy of Modern Song.
The new tome, released on Tuesday, consists of 66 short essays in which the iconic singer-songwriter dissects various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists. Much like his aforementioned 2004 memoir — which allegedly contained fabrications about his life and has yet to be followed up with a second volume — the new book has earned both praise and criticism.
For one, many have pointed out that the word “modern” in the title is misleading. Leaving out genres he would likely be ill-equipped to critique — including hip hop and rap — he focuses primarily on songs from his formative years. In fact he only includes three recordings from the 21st century, with the most recent recording being Alvin Youngblood Hart’s 2004 take on “Nelly Was a Lady,” a song that was originally written and composed by Stephen Foster in 1849.
As well, only four female performers are included in his 66 picks.
His loose definition of “modern” notwithstanding, the legendary musician has earned praise for the book’s intriguing insight into each selected song, which includes revelations on their history as well as his own unique interpretations.
The latter is on full display in an essay on Carl Perkins’ version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” in which he digs deep into the meaning behind the rock ‘n’ roll classic.
“These shoes are not like other shifty things that perish or change or transform themselves. They symbolize church and state, and have the substance of the universe in them. … They neither move nor speak, yet they vibrate with life, and contain the infinite power of the sun,” he writes rather poetically before launching into a more direct interpretation of the shoes meaning as a status symbol.
“Has any article of clothing ever said more plainly that it wasn’t meant for the farm, that it wasn’t made to step in pig shit?”
Meanwhile, other moments in the book see the rock ‘n’ roll legend offer up both criticism and praise in a single breath. Of “Blue Bayou,” he writes:
“Sometimes songs can be slippery in the studio — they can go right through your fingers. Some of our favourite records are mediocre songs at best that somehow came alive when the tape was running.”
At other times his criticisms are more overt, like his essay on Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” which he says contains “too many ideas that just bang up against themselves.”
Still, woven throughout the book is an understanding of the subtle nuances of meaning in his generation’s most beloved songs.
In an essay on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” for instance, Dylan discusses how the artist’s Christian upbringing shines through in the song:
“In many cases the artistry is in what is unsaid,” he notes of songwriting in another essay.
But perhaps most telling, is a moment in the book where Dylan acknowledges how little he really knows about the genesis of a great song.
“Music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space,” Dylan writes. “The more you study music, the less you understand it.
“An inexplicable thing happens when words are set to music. The miracle is in their union … People keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music, like all art, including the art of romance, tells us time and time again that one plus one, in the best of circumstances, equals three.”