Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song

From my teenage days on, I have been reading extensively and looking out for role models: people with a deeper understanding of life who could inspire me. Novelists like Hermann Hesse or Ernest Hemingway certainly provided that – however, I soon realized I needed to find my own truth. And that required making my own experiences, not following someone else’s example.

In the last couple of years, I have read mostly non-fiction, often about spiritual topics. It’s a different kind of reading: More about finding resonance in me, awakening something in me that is already there, but not (fully) conscious, rather than learning facts or new perspectives about the world.

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner – Song Lyrics and Books

Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song. Book cover.
Bob Dylan: The Philosophy of Modern Song. Book cover.

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition“. This definitely relates more to his songs, his lyrics, rather than him being a book author – though he did publish Tarantula, a poetry book, in 1971, written in 1965 and 1966.

In late 2022, Bob Dylan published The Philosophy of Modern Song, at age 81, six years after being awarded the Nobel Prize. I find reading this book enjoyable in a way and to an extent that is hard to pin down. The feelings it gives me are very similar to when I read Chronicles not long ago, his autobiography published in 2004 (maybe worth another post), and very unlike any other feelings I have experienced from reading in a very long time.

What Makes The Philosophy of Modern Song so special?

I have read some negative reviews, and I can understand that people who are shaped by university studies are disappointed, or at least mislead by the term philosophy. Dylan does not provide anything like a coherent theory of song writing, or any coherent framework at all in this book. What I do find in it, however, is lots of answers to the longing from my teenage days: wisdom and an impressive ability to get to the core of life. Dylan takes specific starting points and can generalize them or elevate them to a higher level, a deeper meaning, in an instant. Often he provides enlightening background knowledge. Besides, he is a master in keeping it short: He chooses his words carefully, is well aware of the power of omission, he even refers to the image of an iceberg: most of it is hidden underwater. That idea applies to songwriting and storytelling as well.

Topics well worth reading include: war, suffering, obsessive love, precursors of Rock’n Roll long before the term even existed, the madness of the world, the desire to get away from madness, divorce lawyers, and many more. You even learn how the widely spread myth came about that lemmings commit mass suicide (hint: think Disney).

An example of where Dylan goes deep with a carefully chosen song: Doesn’t Hurt Anymore by John Trudell. As Dylan puts it:

As you get deeper into his work, you can’t go wrong with the Bone Days album and a song called “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore”. The space between it and Hank Snow’s song “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” is profound. One is sort of a gaudy statement about teardrops drying, but the other will tear your heart out.

Another chapter that really touched me to the point I was crying was about Elvis Presley. Again a well-selected song (Viva Las Vegas) that serves as a reference point for tragic unfolding.

Also a great read: Dylan’s take on Don’t let me be misunderstood (Nina Simone). You learn about Esperanto, the language meant to overcome language barriers between people. Then, Dylan elaborates on the difficulties of translation, using the first sentence of Albert Camus‘ novel The Stranger as a compelling example: Only four words, yet the complexities of French tenses make even such an innocent-looking, simple sentence ambiguous.

Relationships, The Bible, Religion

The chapter I’d like to dedicate some more attention to is built around If you don’t know me by now by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Dylan, in his unique style, starts off by capturing the feeling the song conveys, its essence: a relationship that is falling apart. It is falling apart even though the two partners seem to value what they’ve got, and they are not naive.

Then, out of the blue and seemingly unrelated, he suddenly goes on about religion and the bible. Why do people turn their backs on God? Things used to be different: people used to think and sing about religion, it formed an integral part of their lives. What has estranged people from it? Part of the reason is that religion is instrumentalized, used to create fear or separate people from each other. Another reason may be that some parts of the bible seem too harsh to allow people to connect easily. Dylan refers to Job as an example.

These thoughts really captivated me as someone who cares deeply about spirituality. Why is there even a gap between religion and spirituality? In its essence, I feel it should be the same. The term religion is derived from latin, where it can be associated with the verb “to re-connect”. So it is about reconnecting man to God, the eternal, both the force in the universe that nourishes all life and extends beyond mortality, and the immortal spark inside of man.

So, back to Dylan: How can people rediscover their once natural relation to religion and God? To quote one sentence:

Helping people fit things into their lives is so much more effective than slamming them down their throats.

But what does that have to do with the starting point of the chapter, the song about a failing relationship? This is where Dylan’s mastery truly shines. With the last sentence of the chapter, he connects the dots and reveals he was talking about the same thing throughout. He never opened up a secondary topic by suddenly referring to the bible.

The story about Job becomes much more accessible when the prologue is taken into account, where God bets against the devil about how Job will react to constant challenges.

So context matters! The same idea holds true both for relationships and religious / spiritual faith. It is about helping people integrate insights into their daily lives.

The last sentence of the chapter, which follows the paragraph about Job, a remark about the importance of context and the sentence quoted above, and had me completely stunned, reads: “Here’s another way to look at a love song.” A fine example of incredibly powerful writing.

Some Dylanologists have argued that Dylan’s Christian phase was short-lived, that he abandoned it after his so-called Christian trilogy consisting of the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).

I don’t think he abandoned anything. Just like he didn’t break ties with his Jewish roots (he still went to a bar mitzvah with one of his children), he didn’t give up on his Christian faith either. (He played Gotta Serve Somebody extensively in 2021, 2022 and 2023.) The abovementioned chapter on If you don’t know me by now illustrates how Dylan can raise any topic to a higher level. The spiritual view of the world is always present, transcends everything.

Get the book (note: paid link):

The Philosophy of Modern Song: Bob Dylan

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