A Response to Bob Dylan’s “Philosophy of Modern Song”

Earlier this month, Bob Dylan released The Philosophy of Modern Song, a nimble, surrealistic 66-song compendium that details their existential weight and occasionally explains what a particular track might mean or do. The book reminded me at times of the accompanying lyrics to Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” in which Smith deftly summarizes the narrative of each song as if it were a newspaper headline. (The entry for Chubby Parker’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” a novelty song about a frog and mouse getting hooked reads: “ZOOLOGICAL MISCEGENY ACHIEVED IN MOUSEFROG WEDDING, RELATIVES AGREE.”) Dylan is less literal and leans more toward allegorical second-person smears. Of Uncle Dave Macon’s Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, first recorded for Vocalion Records in 1924, he writes: “In this song your self-identities are interlocked, each of you a dead ringer to the other. . . . You’re muzzled and unleashed, walking the crooked path at night, the king’s road, stealing turkey drumsticks and everything sweet and spicy, roaming the tobacco fields like Robin Hood and grilling and stewing everything in sight.

Dylan has always had a vaguely strained relationship with the writers and journalists who frantically analyze his songs for meaning, and as I read The Philosophy of Modern Song there were moments when I blushed slightly with concern that the book could be an elaborate gag poking fun at all the drooling critics who went berserk trying to illustrate the weight and beauty of his work. (Who among us hasn’t shuffled a metaphor once or twice?) Still, anyone who has listened to “Theme Time Radio Hour,” the Sirius XM show that Dylan hosted from 2006-2009, will resonate with the syntax and rhythm of his descriptions. be very familiar. Ultimately, both projects seriously reiterate how difficult it is to dissect, examine, and evaluate something as indescribable and mind-bending as popular music. Occasionally, late at night, hunched over my stereo, ice cubes clinking around a cold glass, I like to engage in eloquent Dylan-style soliloquy and espouse the spiritual meaning of, say, Missy Elliott’s “Work It” or Joanna Newsom’s “Sapokanikan” or Stevie Nick’s “Edge of Seventeen”: “A mystery to be solved, written in a foreign language, put in a glasses case, delivered to the open window at half past midnight by a snowy owl with a crooked black eye,” I croak at no one. Dylan’s descriptions are tone poems, intricate evocations of a particular mood or feeling. He is deeply interested in the devastation that binds us together. In one of the book’s more eloquent and emotional bits, about John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore,” Trudell’s pregnant wife, three children, and mother-in-law were killed in a suspected house fire on the Duck Valley Indian Restraint, in Montana, in 1979 — he writes that what ultimately unites people is “suffering and only suffering.” Dylan understands that the most important thing about a song—perhaps the most important thing in life—is how it makes you feel. Sometimes it’s impossible to get that feeling down on paper without getting a little weird. The final entry in the book is “Where or When,” a 1959 hit for Dion and the Belmonts. “And as Dion’s voice breaks through for a solo moment on the bridge, it captures that moment of memory’s shimmering persistence as the printed word can only suggest,” writes Dylan.

The premise of “The Philosophy of Modern Song” was to select a finite number of songs – for Dylan to define the canon that defined him – and he did so without ambiguity. (“No matter how many chairs you have, you only have one butt,” he reminds us.) Much like Smith’s “Anthology,” Dylan’s book, despite its snappy title, is deeply personal. To be fair, taste should be idiosyncratic and somehow awkward. (I’m reminded every time Barack Obama releases another exquisitely curated and artfully comprehensive list of his favorite books or records – yes, yes, fine, but what do you really like when no one else is looking when the critics aren’t there? Don’t count?) It’s apparent that Dylan hasn’t adjusted his preferences to fit a cultural narrative or downplayed his age, though he seems to have been aware of the smirking remark, “Okay, Boomer: Old and just in the way,” writes he, “Long before there was ‘okay, boomer’ taunts and experienced people used the derogatory term ‘old man’, this country had a tendency to isolate the grey-haired nitwit, if not on an ice floe, than in old people’s homes where they faced the tender eyes of youth could play gummy pudding and bingo.”

However, the fact that the book only contains four songs performed by women – let that sink in! – is both somber and startling. This could lead readers to question Dylan’s character and, more worryingly, wonder at the limits of his musical knowledge. While it’s possible to bypass the lack of women (and it’s hard to take the emptiness as satirical), his essay on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” is peppered with odd, doddering declarations: married couple is childless “No family. . . . They’re just two friends; Friends with benefits and insurance, but still just friends.” He continues to advocate polygamy, wondering if an “oppressed woman with no future, beaten about by the whims of a cruel society” “would be better off than one of a rich man’s wives – well taken care of instead of having no friends on the street dependent on government stamps?” Is this a joke? does it matter?

And so, in the spirit of reworking and reappropriation and hubris, that is, in the spirit of folk music, I have attempted to make a counterpart to The Philosophy of Modern Song: my own list of formative records that warp my perception. They are presented here in no order and without annotation. Not all of these songs were written by their respective performers, but all of the performances are exceptional. I had a little help from my friend, editor and staff Dylanologist David Remnick. (Like Dylan in the book’s acknowledgments, I would also like to sincerely thank “the entire crew at Dunkin’ Donuts” for helping to drive this endeavor forward.)

Joni Mitchell, “A Case of You”

Bjork, “Army of Me”

Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair”

Missy Elliott, “Work It”

Aretha FranklinAmazing Grace

Bessie Smith, “Down Hearted Blues”

Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, “Last Kind Words Blues”

PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”

Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love”

Tina Turner, “You Better Be Good To Me”

Salt-N-Pepa, “Push It”

Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”

Donna Summer, “I Feel Love”

Vashti Bunyan, “I’d Like To Walk Around In Your Head”

Yes Yes Yes, “Maps”

Blondie, “Call me”

Amy Winehouse, “You Know I’m No Good”

Sleater-Kinney, “Jumpers”

Lady Gaga, “You and Me”

Joanna Newsom, “Diver”

Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”

Pat Benatar, “We Belong”

The Breeders, “Cannonball”

Cyndi Lauper, “Again and Again”

Erykah Badu, “Didn’t Know”

Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares to 2 U”

Karen Dalton, “Something on the Mind”

Dolly Parton, “Jolene”

Aimee Mann, “Wise Up”

Brittany Howard, “Stay High”

Nico, “today”

Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust”

Chaka Khan, “Through the Fire”

The Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket”

Patti Smith, “Gloria”

Taylor Swift, “All Too Good”

Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”

Carole King, “(You make me feel like a natural woman)”

Laura Nyro, “The Descent of the Luna Rosé”

Stevie Nicks, “Faded After the Glitter”

Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, “Like Before”

Valerie Simpson, “I Don’t Need Help”

Billie Holiday, “God Bless The Child”

Big Mama Thornton, “Everything’s gonna be alright”

Lucinda Williams, “Are You Alright?”

Shirley Collins, “Sweet Green and Blue”

Beyonce, “Love on Top”

Memphis Minnie, “When the Dike Breaks”

Dorothy Fields, “The Way You Look Tonight”

Ellie Greenwich, “River Deep-Mountain High”

Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”

Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam

Abbey Lincoln, “Throw It Away”

Fiona Apple, “I Want You To Love Me”

Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)”

Sylvia Moy, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”

Yoko Ono, “It Will Rain”

Rhiannon Giddens, “Julie”

Odetta, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”

Alice Coltrane, “Blue Nile”

Britney Spears, “Toxic”

Cat PowerHe War

hole, “purple”

Madonna, “Like a Virgin”

Althea & Donna, “Uptown Top Ranking” ♦

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