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Modern Song

I plan to shelve Bob Dylan's The Philosophy of Modern Song, a birthday gift this year, beside my two-volume copy of Paul McCartney's The Lyrics from last year. It's been a while since I've purchased recordings by popular performers, but when I did, I more often collected singer/songwriters than cover artists. I have Dylan's albums on LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs, as well as his earlier 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One, all stored in various boxes and cabinets. Since his new book arrived so soon after publication, I had no time to wonder whether I'd buy it myself. It doesn't collect Dylan's lyrics, as McCartney's does, but is devoted to considerations of recordings and performers from the second half of the twentieth century, though some songs were composed in the first half and a couple in this century. He reacts to sixty-six separate songs spanning a wide range of subgenres, composers and lyricists, and recording artists and cites lyrics more by vague paraphrase than direct quotation.


For example, the third chapter, following chapters about Bobby Bare and Elvis Costello, discusses "Without a Song" as recorded by Perry Como in 1951, accompanied by a photo of sheet music crediting Vincent Youmans as the composer (in 1929) and Lawrence Tibbets as the performer who sang it in The Prodigal, a 1931 MGM movie. I remember Como's version—my family watched his TV show each week (he duetted once with Bing Crosby), and we had the record; mere mention of it brings the melody and a few lyrics to mind. But the fourth chapter discusses, at greater length, "Take Me from this Garden of Evil," written and recorded by Jimmy Wages in 1956 and never released. From time-to-time Dylan draws on a vast, expansive breadth of exposure to "modern song," thoughtfully examined but devoid of academic reference. It's as if Dylan is casually sharing his thoughts about each song without supplying references that would help readers track down texts or recordings. You mostly have to have heard them yourself long ago and draw on your own memories.


Dylan's idea of the philosophy of modern song is expressed in a variety of popular types—ballads, rhythm and blues, country and western, folk, show tunes, rock and roll, and more. Composers range widely as well: Little Richard, Pete Townsend (of the Who), Jackson Browne, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("Mack the Knife"), Willie Nelson, Domenico Modugno ("Volare"), Hank Williams, Rodgers and Hart, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Pete Seeger, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Lerner and Lowe. Most chapters open with a second-person address to the speaker in the song, as if the prospective singer is speaking to himself—or trying to inhabit and identify with the personality that will project from the lyrics.


Take the first two pages of Chapter 35, on "Blue Bayou" by Roy Orbison: "In this song you've been saving your pesos, penny pinching all your small change. Working freelance, doing drudge work so you can get back to Blue Bayou. A place close to heaven that lingers in your head." Later a second section of the chapter will talk about the song: "This is both a spectacular song and a spectacular record." There's a darker opening for "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams: "This is the story of the con artist. In this song you're the swindler who sold me a faulty bill of goods—beguiled me, double crossed me, and now you're out of moves and soon you'll be groaning with prolonged suffering. How do I know? I just know." Is this what's necessary for a singer, to become the person reciting the lyrics from within himself? Do you alter your identity with every set of lyrics you perform?


I haven't said enough about everything that's in this book visually as well as dramatically. But possibly Dylan wraps it up in his final pages, riffing on Dion and the Belmonts' 1959 hit "Where or When," a 1937 song by Rodgers and Hart performed in both stage and screen versions of Babes in Arms. Dylan considers the difference as like reincarnation—"star-crossed romance playing out in different times and in different flesh." (I have the single somewhere.) Dylan claims that Dion's voice "captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at." For Dylan, music "is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself." He concludes, "Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again."


Most of these songs are likely accessible online, but Dylan makes me eager to hear them again on my old Victrola. I need to discover who I think is listening to them now.


Note: Dylan, Bob. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

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