Did You Hear the One About the Joker and the Thief?

There is really too much in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song to write about, but writing about books is one of the ways I make a few bucks now and then. So, I’m writing about it. Just doing so brings a smile to my lips. So does Bob Dylan’s offhanded way of saying things you already know but never could figure out an appropriate way to say them. When he writes that knowing a singer’s life doesn’t help you understand the song, I listen. Likewise, when he writes about the Edwin Starr hit, “War” and tells the reader that if they want to see a war criminal, they should look in the mirror. Face it, we’re all complicit. Then, there’s the stuff you didn’t know and his way of stating it keeps that smile on my face.

This isn’t some deep literary analysis of the popular song or even of the popular songs commented on in the book. Nor is it a discussion of the use of harmony and the musical meaning of a particular modulation between verse and chorus or verse after verse. What it’s like is hanging out listening to a disc jockey on a radio station in the spirit of Tom Donahue on KSAN-FM or Weasel in 1974 at two in the morning on the Bethesda, MD underground station WHFS after a particularly interesting sequence of songs just played. Riffing on their impressions of the song, stories about the singer and the songwriter, maybe a comment or two on the arrangement and who recorded the ditty besides the band you just heard. Dylan isn’t a stranger to the format. Indeed, his years doing the Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour seemed inspired by what we called underground radio not so long ago. He just added his knowledge, his humor and his voice to a radio format that was too quickly commercialized into boring playlists and little to no DJ commentary. Radio as another victim of capitalist monopoly. (By the way, you can find Dylan’s Radio show on YouTube).

The songs discussed in the book include blues by Jimmy Reed, country music by Waylon Jennings, duets with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, teen romance tripe by Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Jackson Browne, Little Richard and Little Walter, the Grateful Dead and Greasy Dave Macon,Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello. Eddy Arnold and the Fugs. There’s a couple by Chuck Berry and one or two by Bobby Darin. And a few dozen more. Songs you’ve heard a thousand or more times and some you might not have even heard of. That all depends on how much music you listen to and how diversified your tastes are. Or, as Dylan points out once or twice in the text, it depends when you grew up and whether or not you listened to the radio. I would add and if you listened to the records your parents and grandparents played. Regarding the latter, some of my friends still laugh at the fact I really like Nat King Cole. I grew up listening to that smooth full voice and I still am entranced by it, especially when it’s backed by a small combo instead of a full orchestra. My dad also played a lot of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records, which I never really listened to until one of my younger brothers told me I should. The band was fuckin’ tight was how he put it. He was right. Now I listen, although my favorite jazz edges towards bebop, avant garde and beyond.

There’s history inside these short vignettes; real human history and real musical history. Rumor and reality, tragedy and delight. Sexuality and chastity, humor and gravitas. Dylan’s most serious, most evocative moment in this one hell of a book is his tribute to John Trudell, a Santee Dakota Indian whose album aka Grafitti Man stands as one of the most meaningful records of the last forty years. Trudell was an organizer of the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) occupation of Alcatraz Island and the Longest Walk. After presenting a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of the latter action, Trudell’s wife, three children and mother-in-law were burned to death when his home was firebombed in 1979. In his presentation, Dylan compares Trudell to “an ancient Greek poet.” I agree, only Trudell’s history and the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas legacy of tragedy is much much deeper, at least for me.

According to some, Dylan’s book can’t be complete since it doesn’t include a song by James Brown or some other popular artist. While this is a reasonable point, anybody who has ever tried to remember every song or film they thought was in their list of favorites knows you always leave a few out. That’s why I always qualify my lists (on the very rare occasions I make one) as it being my list for the particular moment I made it up. There are other omissions here as well. However, that doesn’t detract from the book. Like anything Dylan or anyone who puts something out there for other folks to read, listen to or watch, someone is going to find fault. It’s the risk one takes. Personally, I find it a worthwhile one.

This is a book about song and songs. The meaning of song and possible meanings of some songs. Dylan’s word play and playful language is on every page, as is his humor, worldliness, weariness, and joy. He invites us into this listening room–his car or his studio, his living room or wherever he drinks a whiskey or two–turns on his playlist and just starts thinking out loud. Like the trickster he sometimes is, he probably doesn’t care if you listen to the music or read his book, but he hopes you might want to jump in and enjoy the contemplations; the deep ones and the rest. After all, he’s entertained even if you aren’t.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com