Some Notes On Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy Of Modern Song

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Some Notes On Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy Of Modern Song

When you open Bob Dylan’s recent book, The Philosophy Of Modern Song, you will probably notice that out of the 66 songs that made the cut, only four women are present. In a book called THE PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN SONG.

Let us sit with that for a while.

There’s no one here who should be in here, if we’re going by the established framework of “The Philosophy of Modern Song.” How do you exclude Joni Mitchell? How do you exclude Carole King? How do you exclude, I dunno, Sharon Robinson? I could just keep typing names here but the problem is that I don’t for a minute believe that Dylan feels that these songwriters and other women who have authored timeless masterpieces don’t belong in this list. Maybe that is projection but this is also the man who invokes Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s name whenever he has the opportunity (including in this book) and I cannot name any other male musicians who do this on the regular.

I cannot for a minute believe that he thinks that “The Whiffenpoof Song” is a better song than “The Circle Game” from any objective criteria with which one can evaluate popular music. Bob is absolutely correct when he writes about the former that “This is a song sung by dues-paying members of the inner circle,” but you called your book THE PHILOSOPHY OF POPULAR SONG. Not “random thoughts I have had about certain songs that intrigue me.” That is what the radio show was for.

The problem is that this is Bob Dylan and every word he utters gets put under a microscope (guilty as charged). The problem is that the title is so definitive, when these are small essays of varying scope and quality that aren’t that much different than the type of thing he’d rap about on his Theme Time Radio Hour (RIP). There is nothing in here that makes me rethink my relationship with these particular songs. It is an interesting read. It is not necessarily an essential one. There are some real zingers, like when he accuses Elvis Costello of “obviously …listening to Springsteen too much” at the time he wrote “Pump It Up.” Or when he opens the essay on “My Generation” with “This is a song that does no favors for anyone, and casts doubt on everything.”

I think the clues to Bob’s problem can be found in literally the first page of text, about Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” where he explains that the song is about a reality that never really existed. “The girl that he’s dreaming about long ago got married to a divorce attorney and she has three kids.”

This is, shall we say, a theme.

Dylan expands on this when you get to Chapter 25, “Cheaper to Keep Her,” by Johnny Taylor. Which is one paragraph about the song and then three pages of ranting against divorce attorneys, pre-nuptial agreements, and how polygamy is really the answer, even for women: “Have at it ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break.” I can’t be the only person who read this and thought, pot meet kettle, if this is a major issue for you, Mr. Blood On The Tracks, perhaps learn to behave better in your personal life. Then again, Bruce Springsteen wrote and released Tunnel of Love without realizing he had written a record about the disintegration of his marriage. Bruce went into therapy. We don’t know if Bob did. Perhaps he should.

There is a lot of whining about this sort of thing throughout the book. Women are evil. Women are the enemy. Women are out to get men. I don’t care if he’s trying to be cute or sly or if he’s trolling us. The problem isn’t even just that it sends a message to the kind of brainless morons who overreact to the announcement of a keynote at the forthcoming Dylan symposium at the Dylan Center in Tulsa because it invokes our Saint Joni (“No God but Herself: Joni Mitchell and the Specter of Bob Dylan,” as presented by Jessica Hopper). There is no shortage of those people. There never will be a shortage of those people.

The larger problem isn’t that dumb men will take permission / glee / approbation from Dylan’s subtle or not-so-subtle digs. It’s that the women in this group and outside of it are going to read it and they are going to consciously — or even worse, subconsciously -- conclude that they are not welcome, that this is not for them, that they should go elsewhere. Which isn’t new, it’s just the status quo. Maybe I’m naive or gullible for expecting better from Bob Dylan. Maybe I’m projecting. But it’s high time for some kind of ally at this level to step the fuck up already.

i tried!

For a palate cleanse, please enjoy this video of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson rocking the fuck out at Springsteen in Barcelona: