“Without A Song The Day Would Never End” – About “The Philosophy of Modern Song”, Bob Dylan, 2022

You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover. Actually, you can’t even judge a book by the title. Not this book, anyway. You might wanna judge it by the dedication to the great Doc Pomus, also honored by Dylan before. Class.

Think about this – you are walking into an old style bar room, dim lights, thick smoke & hillbilly music, and much to your delight it still have that old treasure chest – a jukebox – bright colors, the quiet humming of the electronics, the typed list of songs, some in black, some in blue, and some even in red – you check your pockets and, oh mercy, you find that you still have got one coin left. You choose the song, you push the button, you listen to the magic sound of the jukebox finding the right record, making it ready for the treatment of the needle, and for the next three minutes you own the room, it’s playing your song, the song you want to hear just now, or the one you want the others in the room to hear. Just not A-11, of course.

This is the Bob Dylan Jukebox, he’s spinning the records, he’s choosing the songs, or, as he might say, the songs chose him. It reminds me of the Grammy Acceptance Speech by Jon Batiste for Album of the Year, speaking about the abilities of songs and albums, to reach out to the right person in the right time: “I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor,” he said. “The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it’s almost like it has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” Just like magic. Many of us share this experience with music. Just like magic. The right song appears at the right time, but sometimes too late. Not always the same song. Not always the one song. Not always the favorite. But still – sometimes – the right song at the right time.

The Bob Dylan Jukebox? You heard of it before? The forerunner to this book is Bob Dylan’s fabulous radio show “Theme Time Radio Hour”, the early podcast of our dreams, schemes and themes – with your host, Bob Dylan, spinning his records and thoughts about songs, singers, life, love & the human condition in one wonderful jambalaya of music. Hundred episodes with a new theme each night, three seasons from 2006 – 2009, two more in later years, covering the themes “Kiss” & “Whiskey“. The songs included, 1894 (!!) of them, are not always the obvious choices, the version he plays is not always with the artist you expect, even with 1158 (!!) artists presented, both songs and artists introduced in the incomparable unique way by your host. This is the place where we’re introduced to Bob Dylan, the radio DJ – “He’s better than Wolfman Jack!” said Tom Waits – the same Wolfman Jack Dylan addresses in “Murder Most Foul” (by the way a song loosely related to this project).

Why a forerunner to this book? It’s all about the songs, the three or four or five or more dimensions of a song – the performance of it, the lyrics of it, the rhythm of it, the structure of the song, the syllables and the syncopation in a performance, the sound of it, the music, the melody, the story behind the song, behind the singer, behind the songwriter, behind different versions of it, the place in your heart it touches, the memories it recalls, the pictures it make you see, the way it makes you feel, the thoughts it make you think, what does it tell us, what does it hide, the artistry in the unsaid, the songs as a door opener to your heart, the songs as a slap in your face, a pain-killer or a pain-maker, the song as a door opener to your past or to your future, the song’s ability to make you understand something beyond & deeper than the words, to make you laugh, cry or dance. It’s all about the songs. The magic of songs. The possibilities of songs. Philosophy? There is no philosophical dogma or absolute conclusions here. Maybe more some philosophizing about a song or about songs, but just as much the hunt of finding words for the non-scientific alchemy of songs, the song as catalyst, the song as a result of an explosion of coincidence or talent that results in a departure from songs before, of innovation, of extending the lines and connecting the dots, of the making of a modern song, modern even before we where born, even before we thought we knew the meaning of the word modern.

“Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past,” sang Dylan in “Bye And Bye” from “Love And Theft” in 2001 – delving into musical forms that predates the sixties, that predates rock, that predates what most people think of as modern, songs from the early days of recording, as a matter of fact, the first released version of “Nelly Was A Lady”, recorded by Frank Coombs in 1910, “Mack The Knife” or “Moritat von Mackie Messer” was performed the first time in 1928 by Kurt Gerron, and a center piece of this book, “Without a song” got its lyrics to the melody in 1929, then released Paul Whiteman & his orchestra with Bing Crosby My point is that the carefully chosen songs are also choices of performances of songs, not only based on skills of songwriting or the original version. Performance of a song can make it rise to the sky in so many ways, expand its meaning, its depth and above all the impression it makes on you and me. Dylan is himself a master in making songs his own, like the way he opens new doors just by the way he sings the little beauty “You Belong To Me”. He knows what he is talking about. He knows what he is writing about in this book. As he did when he wrote his liner notes to “World Gone Wrong”, long time ago. This is part of his DNA, of his endless journey of pointing to the tradition he’s coming from, as he also described passionate in “Chronicles” and as he has showed both live and in studio through the years.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is a jukebox, but not only of songs, this one also contains Bob Dylan’s riffs inspired by every one of them (it’s the button next to the song, you see). The “dreamlike riffs” are sometimes like sketches for the film of which this special song could be the soundtrack, sometimes a bottomless insight in Meditations of the human condition, indeed. Dylan enters the songs and enters a possible character of the “I” in the song, dead serious but sometimes also with a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes I guess the Dylan riffs possibly would amaze not only the reader of the book, but even the author of the song – that’s the magic of inspiration – the way songs works in mysterious ways when hitting hard. Then you use the songs for your own purposes.

You’ll find gold on every page of this book, to start underlining might be wasteful. Streams of consciousness, streams of experience, streams of dreams, streams of memories, streams of wisdom, streams of knowledge, it’s all in the game.

This is not a greatest hits of songwriting, Dylan turning his back to meaningless ranking, and by all means, why do we have to choose? I don’t think there is a hidden meaning in that 1894 songs of Theme Time Radio Hour added with those 66 equals 1960 – but I think there is a broader perspective here, about the power of Song, about Song as art, both written, performed and listened to – and Dylan gives us a wide variety of songs that underlines this point. The hunt for artists that should be in this book out of other criteria than the author himself, seems like a waste of time. Of course Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest songwriters, of course Leonard Cohen, Jimmie Rodgers (just read those liner notes written by Dylan), Chuck Berry, Tom Waits & Willie Dixon belongs in that league. John Prine, Jesse Winchester, Guy Clark – pick and choose. Of course the performances of Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Edith Piaf, Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams could have been included, like the ones of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James & John Lee Hooker and many, many more. Of course the book could have included 666 riffs and not 66 (maybe not…), but that’s not the point. This isn’t THE list. Just listen to the diesels humming in this slowly moving train of love for Song.

Speak about listen – I started with the audiobook as soon as it was available, let it wash over me like cool, clear water, drowning in the sound of it, Dylan’s passionate performances of his own riffs, the exquisite appearances of a dream list of great voices in the choir behind him – voices of experience and lived life, voices of beauty and voices of wisdom. It’s tempting to follow up on Dylan’s own words from his Nobel Lecture, about that songs are meant to be heard and listened to, not read. I think this is true of this book, too. Of course you should read it – the look and feel of the book, the many great photos, and the luxury of reading one line again and again, but let me put it this way – you should both listen to it and read it. In that order. My recommendation would be to listen to the songs first (be sure to get a playlist that includes the chosen performances of the songs!), then listen to the audio book, and then read it – then listen to the songs again, maybe with new eyes & ears. Then – if you got the time, and hasn’t already listened to “Theme Time Radio Hour”, just dive in, chronologically or thematically. The relationship between some of the riffs in the program and the ones in this audiobook is obvious – some could have been outtakes, I guess. The close co-operation with Eddie Gorodetsky in both projects are not a coincidence. Neither is, I think, that the work with this book started the year after the last season of “Theme Time Radio Hour” (2006-2009).

The author, famously known for lines about no direction home, one time stating that he were born a long way from where he belong, and that he’s on his way home, starts the book with “Detroit City” (Dylan actually played it live once in 1990), in its first version named “I Wanna Go Home”, and enters the mind of the “I” in the song with great empathy for the need and wish of going home. In his own “Mother of Muses” he now sings every night about “I’m traveling light and I’m soon coming home”. There are also a few other of the songs he played live or on record, e.g. “It’s All In The Game”, “Big River”, the touching “Come Rain or Come Shine”, even “Poison Love” with Doug Sahm and of course “Pancho And Lefty” with Willie Nelson. Songs close to his heart, one might think, as in the case of “You Don’t Know Me”. There are many sentiments both in some of the songs and in some of the author’s inspired comments about songs or artists, that makes us think of them as comments with a personal flavor, like when he speaks about the blessings of the road: “The thing about being on the road is that you’re not bogged down by anything. Not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people and you keep the grief to yourself.” . Another place he reminds us of what we might be mislead by: «Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song. Frank Sinatra’s feelings over Ava Gardner allegedly inform I’m a Fool to Want You, but that’s just trivia. It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.»

To even try to mention every beautiful or/and interesting passage of this book is difficult, there are too many, and half the joy is finding it yourself. Dylan’s way of shedding light of artists and songs that aren’t the most known, is also present in this book, and one of my favorite chapters is the one about Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin” – mentioning this special performance, describing it in a way that only a true music lover and a true poet is able to – concluding: “This is as gallant, generous, and faithful a performance as you’ll ever hear.”

Speaking about Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” he speaks about the uniqueness in Hank’s singing, a quality that’s lost in much of the music of today: “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Everything is too full now, we are spoon-fed everything. All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.”

His riff on “Come Rain or Come Shine” is pure poetic beauty in his description of love, or a moment of love, when everything is at its best: “You look at things from beginning to end, and you borrow each other’s understanding”.

When he speaks about Ricky Nelson, Dion and also about Bobby Darin, he focuses and highlight all three artists will to evolve through phases and stages. About Rick: “Rick was the only one out there trying to do new material. Oh, he did a couple of familiar songs. But he also did some of his newer songs. People booed.” (Rick covered Dylan, but Dylan also returned the favor with “Lonesome Town”. About Bobby: “His phrasing, especially on a pop ballad like this, is the driving wheel of the production. Time and time again he’ll slip the first few words into the end of the previous line. He’s very subtle and you don’t realize he’s doing this.” About Dion: “Dion DiMucci evolved throughout his career, changing outwardly but maintaining recognizable characteristics across every iteration. Not reincarnations in the strictest sense but an amazing series of rebirths….” Sounds familiar?

Dylan, in the chapter “Black Magic Woman”, speaks wisely of the alchemy that happens in the marriage of lyrics and music: “Some would call that marriage chemistry, but chemistry seems too based in science and therefore replicable. What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy, chemistry’s wilder, less disiplined precursor, full of experimentation and fraught with failure, with its doomed attempts to turn base metals into gold. People can keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music, like all art, including the part of romance, tells us time time and time again that one plus one, int the best circumstances, equals three.”

In the chapter “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” he writes with great humility of the genius of Nina Simone, but also discusses the word understanding when it comes to art: “Like any other piece of art, songs are not seeking to be understood. Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand.” The statement harmonizes quite good with the Nobel Lecture: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”

There are quite a wide span of themes in this book, and of course religion has to be one of them, where Dylan is brilliantly describing in the chapter “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” about the theme: “Sometimes the difference between religion and science can be measured in the distance between the unanswered and the unanswerable question. People live in fear. For instance, at the end of the day when the sun disappeared people were afraid it might never come back. Religion calmed them with a solution to the unanswerable question – the greek God Helios dragged the sun across the sky every morning in a golden chariot. It was his job, he would do it every day, and that calmed the fear of living in darkness. Time passed and science made discoveries and unanswerable questions began to get answered. The Earth spun on its axis and revolved around the sun. Helios retired.” Brilliant!

In the same chapter Dylan elaborates on the echo chambers of our time, as opposed to the variety of earlier times – now “a man needs only pick one thing he likes and feast exclusively on a stream dedicated to it….. Turns out, the best way to shut people up isn’t to take away their forum, it’s to give them all their own separate pulpits. Ultimately most folks will listen to what they already know and read what they already agree with. They will devour pale retreads of the familiar and perhaps never get to discover they might have a taste for Shakespeare or flamenco dancing. It’s the equivalent of letting an eight-year-old pick their own diet. Inevitably they’ll choose chocolate for every meal and end up undernourished with rotted teeth and weighing five hundred pounds. Somewhere between Pete’s “big fool” and lemmings being chased of a cliff.” That’s pretty dark, but sadly poignant.

The book ends with the chapter “Where or When”, Dion’s recording from 1959, presenting the song as a song of reincarnation, of history repeating itself. He then is mentioning Dion’s “solo moment in the bridge, it captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the written word can only hint at. But so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.”

There is much to love and to learn from “The Philosophy of Modern Song”, but after all, maybe this might be the most important, the whole work an important justification of that old knowledge, the one that Dylan himself used in his speech after receiving the ASCAP award in 1986, (quoting Elvis, who used the same verse in another acceptance speech):

“Without a song, the day would never end.
Without a song the road would never bend.
When things go wrong, a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song.”

Oh, yes, and this – in the chapter of the song in this book, about Perry Como’s performance of this song: “When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and he believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?” Indeed.

Just listen to the book. Then read it. It’s a wellspring.

.

Johnny Borgan

5 thoughts on ““Without A Song The Day Would Never End” – About “The Philosophy of Modern Song”, Bob Dylan, 2022

  1. Johnny B~ I am 2 hours removed from experiencing my first flamenco show here in Madrid, many miles from home and 65 years on our planet. With great delight I watched the fire from your brain come through your words on Bob’s latest masterpiece. I will take your suggested route to enjoy it. Now I must go play A-11.

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  2. Once again some sort of a masterpiece from your hand

    In my mind – all muscians menthioned – (and I really only know a fewer of them) – either in your article or in Bob’s book….has for sure GIVEN more to the human mankind, than any politician would ever be able to…

    Thanks again, Johnny!

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  3. Johnny,

    On the release date, a friend asked for my description of the book after I had only skimmed through the quirky photos and read a couple of chapters. I told him it was “the print version of Theme Time.” I am taking your “audio first” recommendation and working my way through this slowly. I hate to see it end, but re-reading will be a must. I am amazed at how quickly you absorbed POMS and wrote such an insightful essay. Nicely done!

    All the best,

    Jeff

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