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Reviews for The Philosophy Of Modern Song

by Bob Dylan

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Nobel laureate Bob Dylan is known for his eclectic tastes as well as his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. He puts that expertise to the test in this widely entertaining romp through popular-music history. Even if readers aren't familiar with a song under discussion, they will still enjoy and appreciate his take on it. Starting with Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” and ending with Dion & the Belmonts' “Where or When,” Dylan runs through 66 songs, explaining why, in his opinion, these particular compositions work. Throughout, he shares his views on songwriting. “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song,” he offers. "It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” The book is also a plaint against conformity as he praises songs that stand out for their originality, individuality, and inventiveness. Dylan’s prose is often as vivid as his own lyrics, such as when he discusses Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin.” Referring to the country singer’s short stature, he notes that, “Like a lot of small men, he was wrapped tighter than the inside of a golf ball and hit just about as often.” Many of the songs here, as with perhaps most songs, were written with the ear in mind. An important distinction, Dylan believes. What’s more, he compares what happens between the marriage of words and music to alchemy, “chemistry’s wilder, less disciplined precursor." Illustrated with a rich collection of images ranging from vintage photos and movie stills to album and pulp-fiction covers, this quirky book is not only full of surprises but also a wonderful consideration of contemporary songs by the modern era’s master songwriter.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The iconic singer/songwriter reflects on a lifetime of listening to music. Nostalgia abounds in Bob Dylan’s eclectic and eccentric collection of impressive musical appreciations. Examining 66 songs across numerous genres, going back to Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” (1849), the author offers an extensive hodgepodge of illustrations and photographs alongside rich, image-laden, impressionistic prose. There is no introduction or foreword. Instead, Dylan dives right in with “Detroit City,” Bobby Blare’s 1963 single: “What is it about lapsing into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” Throughout the text, the author is consistently engaging and often provocative in his explorations. Regarding “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles, he writes, “The lips of her cunt are a steel trap, and she covers you with cow shit—a real killer-diller and you regard her with suspicion and fear, rightly so. Homely enough to stop a clock, she’s no pussycat.” Deconstructing Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s “Pancho and Lefty,” Dylan describes songwriting as “editing—distilling thought down to essentials.” We can see the author’s mind working, reminiscing, but there’s little autobiography here. Where needed, he tosses in some prodigious music history and biography, and some appreciations read like short stories. Often, Dylan straightforwardly recounts what a specific song is about: “By the time you get to Phoenix it will be morning where she is, and she’ll be just getting out of bed.” Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is a “remembrance of things past,” and Dion and the Belmonts’ version of the Rodgers and Hart song “Where or When” is about “reincarnation.” Also making appearances are Carl Perkins, Perry Como, The Clash, Roy Orbison, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Cash, Judy Garland, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead. Bobby Darin and Willie Nelson appear twice. “A record is so much better when you can believe it.” Dylan is clearly a believer, and he will convince readers to follow. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Nobel-winning songwriter Dylan (Chronicles: Volume One) offers a marvelous survey of the recordings he loves. Across 66 chapters—each delving into a song recorded between 1924 and 2004—Dylan considers what a particular number might mean to listeners of many stripes: “Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song,” he writes. “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” The passage on Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” pulls this off brilliantly, drawing a line from 1950s rockabilly through the past four decades of hip-hop and giving voice to the aggression required to protect one’s “point of pride”: “If you want to live and know how to live, you’ll stay off my shoes.” Chronicles: Volume Two this is not, but there’s plenty of unfiltered Dylan; his entry on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” swerves into a riotous screed on the divorce litigation industry, while his ode to the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’ ” praises Bob Weir’s performance in a way that fans might describe Dylan himself: “The guy singing the song acts and talks like who he is, and not the way others would want him to talk and act.” There’s no end to the joy of joining this elusive and voracious artist in musical appreciation. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wiley Agency. (Nov.)