The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan - review by Charles Shaar Murray

Charles Shaar Murray

Brood on the Tracks

The Philosophy of Modern Song


Simon & Schuster 352pp £35

Once upon a time, when a downy-cheeked Bob Dylan had but lately arrived in Greenwich Village from the Midwest, he wandered into a deserted bar and found jazz innovator Thelonious Monk doodling alone at the piano. They chatted. Dylan volunteered that he was playing folk music in a club down the road. Monk replied, ‘We all play folk music.’

Indeed. Or, as Big Bill Broonzy put it, ‘All songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing ’em.’ Dylan is primarily a storyteller, folklorist and fabulist: he loves the magic and mystery of ancient narrative balladry and also the way in which time can transform old pop into a kind of folk music or even folklore.

It would be wise not to take the title of this book too literally. ‘Philosophy’ could imply a learned dissertation and the term ‘modern song’ might carry a very different implication for anyone significantly younger than Dylan, who turned eighty-one earlier this year. In this handsome and profusely illustrated volume, the Hoarse Foreman of the Apocalypse provides his insights into sixty-six songs. The oldest, by Stephen Foster, dates from 1849 and the newest, by Warren Zevon, from 2003, with the bulk originating in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. As long ago as 1987, he was tetchily telling an interviewer, ‘They don’t have to make any more new records – there’s enough old ones, you know?’

Just as every atom in the universe was present at the Big Bang, so virtually every element that made up the future Bob Dylan was already in place before he became the ‘spokesman for a generation’ (of which many are now dead and many others are currently not

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