When I was much younger, a wise old owl of a senior colleague pointed out that one of the occupational hazards of being a professor was that, once you reach a certain age, you begin to believe that everything you say must be right, since it came out of the mouth of a great authority like yourself. I've always kept this observation in mind in my own work, trying not to write sentences unless I was certain that they were as true as I could make them, and working to return always to the beginning of things, to approach each new project as if I were writing for the first time. But it's good advice in many contexts.
I was reminded of this bit of wisdom when I read, at the urging of friends, Bob Dylan's newly published book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. This past month, upon publication, the book debuted at #3 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, right after Bono's autobiography. I can't comment on Bono, but it might be worth trying to figure out what, exactly, Dylan notices and values in songs.
Dylan has for many years--since the 1990s, more or less—taken his place as a senior authority on American song and popular culture. As early as 1988 he was blurbing—in the company of the distinguished Harvard professor Helen Vendler—an anthology of poetry by Allen Ginsberg. Starting around the beginning of the new century, he began writing songs that wore their cultural references on their sleeves, full of quotations and references to other songs and poems--stuff that that was obvious to anyone who could whistle. In 2001, he produced an album called "Love and Theft," that took its title from a scholarly book about the history of minstrelsy. He became a prose writer, with a well-received 2004 memoir called Chronicles, Volume 1, in which he opined on the recording process and offered misleading clues about his early days. Then he turned to radio, with his Theme Time Radio Hour, in which he collected songs, often very obscure, on various topics, sprinkling in corny jokes and thoughtful insights. Now, after winning the Nobel Prize, he seems to have become an all-purpose sage and scholar, offering, in his latest collection of songs, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), meditations on history, poetic inspiration, and the power of the creative mind to remake the world.
In other words, Dylan has emerged over the past few decades as a kind of teacher to the culture. He should have an endowed university chair. At a moment in which the power of history and the richness of the past are fast receding in the collective memory—to be replaced by terribly reductive fables advanced by both the far left and the far right—Dylan stands firm, reminding us to listen deeply to the past, in all of its sonic complexity. He doesn't have to harangue his students in vain about the importance of reading history, he simply puts out a product that is irresistible, but that you quickly realize you can't make any sense of without knowing something about the past. The study of history thus becomes a requirement if you want to keep up. It's a good pedagogical trick.
Dylan's approach of teaching by demonstrating, rather than teaching by explaining, underpins the approach of The Philosophy of Modern Song. The title recalls Theodor Adorno's volume, The Philosophy of Modern Music. If we expect and hope that Dylan will bring grumpy, high-minded Adorno down to earth, we will be disappointed. There's no philosophy here—either about songwriting, about what songs do, or about the philosophy that is offered in songs. There's no account of the genius of American popular music, or of its contribution to our national story. Instead, we are treated to exaggerated pastiches of Woody Guthrie and Cotton Mather: "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, the highs and lows of it, what it actually is. Truth that needs no proof, where every need is an evil need" (105-6). Huh? Or wacky details, such as the fact that Marty Robbins's grandfather rode with Custer. Dylan hints that this family history is behind Robbins's "El Paso," though the official version is that he wrote it in the back seat of a station wagon on a family car trip from Nashville to California.
Many of the "philosophical" details are simply trite, such as the observation that knowing the circumstances of Doc Pomus's "Save the Last Dance for Me" (Pomus was in a wheelchair when he wrote it) makes the song smaller than when we just take is as a general tragic expression of desire and jealousy. For this I paid $37.95? On the other hand, Dylan being Dylan, there are a few nice observations, here and there, such as the suggestion that Richard Rodgers's "Blue Moon" is best grasped in abstracto, as a kind of perfect song that transcends all possible performances of it. Now that's the kind of Platonism you can latch onto.
Where Dylan is best is when he expresses pleasure--not a common gesture for him--such as his beautiful appreciation of the Grateful Dead. It's not philosophy, but it's sweet. Or when he expatiates about Sonny Burgess's "Feel So Good" as a vestige of a world before drugs took over emotional life. These moral commentaries, which are usually obvious, are well presented, and are the most interesting part of the book.
In a sense, the title of the book is misleading, since its strong points are when the Bard comments on performance. He's not really interested in songs as symbolic structures, designed to elicit emotional response or tell truth. He can't separate song from performance. So, it's a book about the history of several forms of pop music, filtered through Dylan's eccentric taste. He provides a beautiful account of Dean Martin's verbal tics in his recording of "Blue Moon." But don't ask for completeness or methodological seriousness.
Much has been made of the perceived misogyny of the book—the fact that only a few songs are by women and that women are often described in language that is really offensive. And it's not only offensive to twenty-first century snowflakes. I would have hated Dylan's descriptions of the women in these songs even back when I was a thirteen-year-old farm kid, first discovering much of this music. Someone should tell Dylan that it's possible to designate a female as a dangerous presence in a song scenario without commenting on her pudenda. Dylan, who is so good with words, should be able to pull this off, if he gave it any thought. Since the book is an eccentric collection and not a systematic study, I won't even bother to comment on the absence of Laura Nyro, the greatest woman pop songwriter, or on the exclusion of Patsy Cline, the most perfect singer ever. But I could.
What holds the book back more generally, to my mind—and this is why I began with the advice I received from my wise old owl colleague—is that Dylan rarely digs into the songs themselves, into what makes them work. He seems happy to prattle about them, or to talk about something else. But how can you talk about "El Paso," for example, without noting the strange detail that the narrator of the story is dead when he recounts his adventures? This casts the entire story in a different light, undermining its famous romance tropes with a bitter irony, asking us to wonder if "Wicked Felina," the femme fatale, is really as wicked as he says she is. There's not enough noticing, which is surprising, since Dylan is usually a great noticer.
Form, too, gets neglected. Adorno contrasted the formal experimentation of Schoenberg with the conservatism of Stravinsky. He linked the formal language of music to philosophy. Dylan could do that, but he doesn't. Dylan has wonderful thoughts about Bobby Darin's version of "Beyond the Sea," focusing on Darin's use of pickup notes to push the song forward. He even reveals himself to be a bit of a Francophile, listing famous songs that were originally in French (though this may be a payback to the French government, which gave Dylan a medal a few years ago). But the magic of the song—both in Charles Trenet's original hymn to the power and changing character of the sea and in the English version—lies in the harmony, which magically switches keys twice, while maintaining its steady pulse of four chords repeated again and again, I-vi-ii-V. This sense of change within constancy (the characteristic of the sea itself) is played out in the form of the song. "It's far, beyond a star" (change keys, we've changed galaxies), "And I know, beyond a doubt!" (change keys again, we're in a galaxy of the will). This dynamic is captured powerfully in the English translation's brilliant juxtaposition of the phrase "Beyond the sea" with "beyond a doubt," which asserts the lover's certainty of his heart's desire as the force that can overcome geographical distance. It's the emotional center of the song and Darin shouts it out: "But I know, beyond a doubt!" And here, no less than in his recording of "Mack the Knife," which Dylan also comments on, Darin's seizure of the lyric, with bits of scat and ad libs, makes possible a wilful expansion of the song that is possible in American English, but not in the French or German originals. It's the sound of post-war American optimism. With an act of the will, you can overcome distance, or comment wryly on the exploits of a killer. The song, as song, redeems both.
The impact of Dylan's general preference for spinning yarns when he should be digging into the songs is that it makes the songs smaller by overlaying them with a film of Dylanism (not to be confused with Trumpism, which is confusing in a different way). Dylan often presents himself as a tall-tale teller and king of disguise; he remarks, archly, in Martin Scorcese's film about him, "Never trust anyone not wearing a mask." But the entire effect of popular song--as of recorded sound more generally--is that, in its sonic violence, it destroys masks. When you are moved to anger by "Masters of War," or moved to tears by Ray Charles's version of "You Don't Know Me," you are, precisely, not wearing a mask, but dropping one, setting aside the poker face that normally gets you through the day. This is why listening to music in the company of others can be such an overwhelming experience, since it creates community through shared vulnerability. When Dylan buries the songs beneath his own witty comments, he keeps them from reaching us. They become, now, about Bob Dylan. But I guess that's why we're supposed to buy the book. Not because we want to know about these songs, but because everything Bob Dylan says must be worth reading. I'm not convinced. I'd still like to know something about the philosophy of modern song. "Be careful," said the wise old owl.