“Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement.”
–Bob Dylan

Who better to write a book about songs than Bob Dylan? Dylan’s new tome proves more entertaining and straightforward than his 2004 book, Chronicles. True to form, Dylan makes no mention of his own songs in The Philosophy of Modern Song–there’s no need…

My father never listened to Dylan’s music, but he would’ve read this book multiple times and kept it on the coffee table right next to the Who’s Who in Baseball because Dylan writes about many of my father’s musical favorites, such as Marty Robbins, Hank Williams, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and Bobby Bare.

The Philosophy of Modern Song contains sixty-six chapters–each dedicated to a songwriter. Dylan references hundreds of songwriters in this book that contains timeless, iron-clad lines on every page. Dylan covers all the bases: war, politics, religion, love, hate, murder, food, stories and film that completes a majestic tapestry of American music.

Often the narrative takes on the perspective of a character in the song just as much as the composer, which breathes life into the singer, song and sentiment. The Philosophy of Modern Song contains interesting images from Getty, Library of Congress, Alamy Stock photographs, promotion material, paintings and various classic visuals, but Dylan’s stories transcend any optics.

In Chapter Four: “Take Me From This Garden of Evil Jimmy Wages”, Dylan locks into the book’s style and tone: “But you’re in limbo, and you’re shouting at anyone who’ll listen, to take you out of this garden of evil. Get away from the gangsters and psychopaths, this menagerie of wimps and yellow-bellies…This is a garden of corporate lust, sexual greed, gratuitous cruelty, and commonplace insanity.”

Dylan leaves no stone unturned. In Chapter Twelve, he describes one of my favorite songwriters, Townes Van Zandt: “A big part of songwriting, like all writing, is editing–distilling thought down to the essentials. Novice writers often hide behind filigree. In many cases artistry is in what’s unsaid. As the old saying goes, an iceberg moves gracefully because most of it is beneath the surface. That said, it is prescient that John Townes Van Zandt dropped his most prosaic given name early in life, whittling his identity down to an unforgettable run of syllables.” You get the drift…

Dylan reveals that one way to measure a songwriter’s greatness is to look at all the singers who sang their songs. Wisdom resides on all three-hundred and forty pages of this book. Some random Dylan one-liners include: “This song is the grinning skull”. “One of the reasons people turn away from God is because religion is no longer the fabric of their lives”. “There’s lots of reasons folks change their names”. “This is the song of the con artist”. “This song can be taken a couple of different ways”. “Sometimes songs show up in a disguise”. “Las Vegas, crossroads of the modern world”. “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song”.

It’s all gold, but this scribe’s favorite chapters revolve around the songwriters such as Webb Pierce, Billy Joe Shaver, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, The Temptations, Willie Nelson, Johnny Taylor, Ray Charles, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Paycheck, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, Warren Zevon, John Trudell, Little Walter, Johnny Cash, Uncle Dave Macon, Ernie K-Doe, Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Reed, Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra.

The Philosophy of Modern Song stands as a treasure trove of arcane facts and sheer insight regarding American music from one of the greatest tunesmiths of all time. The last paragraph of the book sums it up: “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 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.”