Graded on a Curve: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan contains multitudes, as articulated in his song riffing on Walt Whitman’s concept, on the 2020 album release Rough and Rowdy Ways. And this is evident once again in Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song

Throughout his complex and regenerative career, all of his different sides, and the characters within him, are tangible. The best writer is often the most empathic, able to inhabit the world and emotional memory of a character who exists universes away or who does not exist in real life at all. He is a changer, a shifter, malleable, and belonging to the world and all of its individuals and their probable and potential selves, beyond his own assigned self.

Dylan’s career has been defined by so many self-reinventions, in sound and performance persona. It is this core belief in self-reinvention, and the awareness of innumerable possibilities that lie in creative story-songwriting, that have defined Dylan as a writer and major creative force. His only loyalty has been to his everchanging ideas.

The less that one is attached to the self, the more they can become many selves, sometimes several in one hour or in one day. The less that one is aware of the self through the lens of ego, the more they are free to absorb as a sponge that which is around them, that which has come before them, and that which they would like to be. Taking all of this into account, Dylan’s new book is not surprising at all. It fits and suits him most authentically, paying homage to pop music history that he himself is so much a part of and will be remembered so as such too.

Philosophy is somewhat interestingly dedicated to Doc Pomus, the complex songwriter who co-penned (along with Mort Shuman) such immortal classics (covered by a myriad of artists) as “Little Sister,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Such an honorable choice sets the tone for the rest of the book’s songs, an eclectic collection of early country numbers and classic rock songs, including those by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, as well as surprises like those by the Eagles, Cher, and Bobby Darin.

Dylan poetically elaborates upon the narrative elements at play in these songs, sometimes referencing history and more often than not, posing the songs’ characters as timeless heroes and villains who make up the ongoing, epic story of the world as we know it. In so doing, Dylan demonstrates his writing prowess and penchant for poetic critical analysis, and perhaps most importantly provides an opened window into how he views the universe of songwriting and stories.

An artist is essentially a translator, comprehending and detecting ideas that have not yet been articulated, and through the artist’s individual lens, they articulate these ideas in words, music, or whatever the artist’s chosen medium may be. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan essentially translates the sixty-six songs, riffing on what is already there, elaborating on the characters and themes that are present, adding a new dimension or layer of understanding or possibility. He sets the scene for each song highlighting its layers and sometimes intensifying the song’s storyscape—relating it to the archetypes out there in the ether that writers have drawn on for centuries.

Much of what Dylan has chosen to discuss in his book, is American music of the twentieth century’s first half or so, when the modern world was quickly defining itself with new speed, introduced by industrialism the century before and enabled further across the coming decades by greater technology. Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 film American Pop does this somewhat succinctly, telling the story of popular music in the twentieth century in abstract terms and with a liberal hand, that works quite successfully to convey the emotional sweep of the century’s progression in the United States.

The mysterious evolution of the American character in music is what Bob Dylan has devoted his life to articulating in song, providing America with a soundtrack at some of its most interesting points in history—building upon Woody Guthrie’s approach and artistic mission and taking it further out, in conjunction with the decades through which Dylan himself lived. Ultimately Bob Dylan is such a mainstay of modern songwriting as we know it collectively, or as we remember it nowadays, and thusly it is interesting to read about which songs he chooses to address here, songs that he did not write, songs that are not his own.

The design and aesthetics of Philosophy are engaging and reader-friendly, with each song initiating two or so pages of writing, and an unfailingly captivating sea of photographs from modern life mainly during the 1950s, providing visual reference for the story of The Song in the twentieth century. Unfamiliar photographs of familiar figures like Elvis Presley, “Crying” Johnnie Ray, and many more help to illustrate what cultural critic Greil Marcus referred to as “The Old, Weird America,” the strange collective cultural identity of the US that is ever elusive and eternally fascinating. The American Story, one version of The Human Story, one iteration of the Hero’s Journey.

The main purpose of compiling The Philosophy of Modern Song is to reiterate the unending and ongoing road of The Song, proving how each song written leads to the next, and how all are interconnected, much like how all people are, tied by an invisible spider web of the documented human storyline, the emotional wave of time and space woven together, witnessing all that comes to pass and commenting upon it, through the lens of personal outlook created by the nuance of individual experience and intimate reflection upon whatever that might be.

And it is Dylan’s ingenious telling, his analysis, his writing, that makes reading about these songs exciting. In his own songwriting Dylan sought to create work that at once belonged to no one and everyone, that had always been there and always would be there, to tap into the eternal wave of spiritual human existence in the physical world. Dylan’s songs were, as all creativity is in part, written by the world, articulated through Dylan’s individual perception with his own vernacular and translation, guided by his unique chosen intentions.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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