Singing the American Experience

At 81, Bob Dylan has been a celebrated artist for 60 years, which might be some kind of record. Dylan might even be the definitive post-war artist, the age when American pop culture overran much of the world. His longevity and prolixity are a big part of that success, but another part is his endless touring and his endless searching through American art, especially music, to find evidence of the wondering and wandering heart that defines modern man.

Dylan has accordingly long been surrounded by cults. It started with the young people, especially young men who loved his witty lyrics or his obscurity, his energy, or his youthful impersonation of an old man. But there are also untold academics practicing their dubious methods on his work. There have been all sorts of art exhibitions of his paintings and many books of his drawings. There are the Oscar and Nobel prizes and many other honors that once were thought to mean something but have lately lost even their reputation with the media. Dylan’s name is somehow supposed to be legitimate in all these institutions with which he has never been connected. The cults have failed to capture him, perhaps because they are rather ridiculous.

Dylan has spent much of his career trying to escape this fate which he is nevertheless courting by exercising his charm over his audience. More than other artists who rose to fame in the 60s, he was believed to personally, and therefore authentically, embody a new vision of American freedom. This implied that music would become the source of self-understanding for his fans, too, whereas previously, religious or political traditions would have revealed Americans to themselves. Pop music in the post-war era seems to have sprung from the need of middle-class youth to find an identity. Largely, this has meant that youth in search of meaning have imitated celebrated artists who, in their own turn imitated or impersonated characters or qualities they considered to be most authentic, which usually are associated with the people rather than the elites. There are obvious problems with such an attempt at educating the young about what is sometimes called existential questions. But we can call this popular music a youth revolution among other modern movements that appealed to the youth, and we should wonder at Dylan’s place in it.

The Troubles of the American Heart and the American Artist

Dylan’s attempt is to arouse and respond to the restlessness of the American heart without becoming reducible to either activism or fashion. His new volume, The Philosophy of Modern Song, accordingly deals with songs about modern man’s discontent with his world. Dylan answers our inability to be earnest about why this music appeals to us by taking his readers through 66 songs, mostly mid-century, from the 50s to the 70s, many of them never famous, most of them now forgotten.

There is more country music than some might expect, from Hank Williams to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and then Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt. There are 60 different singers and more writers still. A few names appear multiple times: Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, and Bobby Darin. But there are many other songs mentioned besides, entire playlists at times. In the digital age, many of these are already available to the reader as Spotify playlists. I’m not sure the book makes sense unless you know the songs—especially unless you like them a little. At some point, Dylan says “This is the sound that made America great.” He’s talking about Sonny Burgess’s “Feel So Good,” but also about how after the ‘50s, Americans succumbed to drugs. As music failed to keep spirits high, people turned to technology, pharmacology, medication, and dark technologies doing who knows what to the soul. The music and history are usually intertwined in his writing.

The 66 chapters are brief, usually split into two sections. An introduction to the song, in which Dylan often impersonates the singer, or rather the song itself, reporting and enacting in his wild prose the action of the song. He invites the audience to do likewise by often writing in direct address, plunging us into descriptions and confessions that are sometimes incredibly funny and quite often baffling. And he often has a conclusion, too, usually praising the artist, making the case for the song to be remembered, if it is felt and understood, and sketching out the history of American music. He reminded me of liner notes and of the kind of radio show he mastered with “Theme Time Radio Hour.”

The Philosophy of Modern Song is almost another American Songbook, one focused on the losers. Most of the songs are songs of longing and, not infrequently, of defeat; indignation is more common than joy—the music he highlights seems to arise as a protest against unhappiness, but it’s not clear how much of a cure it can offer. Dylan writes more or less as he speaks, a practiced raving and ranting, his only defense against endless interviews and the curse of angry minds looking through his statements to catch him in something or other. When he gets to Elvis singing “Money Honey,” he has this to say:

Art is a disagreement. Money is an agreement. I like Caravaggio, you like Basquiat. We both like Frida Kahlo and Warhol leaves us cold. Art thrives with such spirited sparring. That’s why there can be no such thing as a national art form. In the attempt, we can feel the sanding of the edges, the endeavor to include all opinions, the hope to not offend. It all too quickly turns to propaganda or rank commercialism.

He also has things to say about lawyers (he doesn’t like them one bit, it seems), God, and marriage. When he discusses Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper To Keep Her,” he notes the strangest thing about family law in America:

Marriage is the only contract that can be dissolved because interest fades or because someone purposefully behaves badly. If you’re an engineer for Google, for example, you can’t just wander over to another company and start working there because it’s suddenly more attractive. There’s promises and responsibilities and the new company would have to buy out your contract. But people seldom think logically when breaking up a home.

These statements are rare and they mix comedy and preaching, as Dylan has done throughout his career. His old leftwing anti-war views (regarding Vietnam, especially) are still on display, as well as his sympathy for the worst off among us. His rants on subjects of great importance remind us that the power of music to affect us depends on our prior moral concerns and the ability of the writer to articulate in his lyrics our worries and perplexities. He suggests that popular music could once rely on artistry or even a casual attitude to achieve an important emotional effect on the audience since Americans brought with them much more experience and even concern for life’s big questions.

Dylan has grown into his old man act, and there must be some pride behind his writing, which quietly identifies his lifetime of experience with the American drama.

As for the music rather than the words, Dylan tries to convey its power through his mad prose. This often sounds ridiculous and there may be something to admiring the comedy of his rants. But I believe it also must be taken seriously—Dylan wouldn’t waste his and our time on trifles. I have shared some of the more outrageous passages with friends and had a good laugh, but then I stopped to think that some of the types of people he describes are easily recognizable and that the mood of madness is not alien, either—it’s just that when you are not under the power of a passion, it is quite difficult to remember how maddening it can be. Dylan remembers and would like us to remember as well since such trying moments in our lives reveal a great deal about the human condition.

Thinking about Singing

About half of the songs are about love, the major theme of popular music. Only a few are sung by women: Rosemary Clooney appears, as well as Nina Simone, Judy Garland, and Cher. Love concerns women and men both, but writing love poetry is decidedly a male pursuit. I think Dylan intends to encourage it and to showcase the artist as a rival to other famous American types—what are called leaders in our decadent times. Many of the songs reveal aspects of the artist in contrast with ordinary people. The artist is more interesting to young men especially, who cannot really achieve much in other domains, given the great institutional obstacles. The artist is not a prophet, but he does somehow have power over people’s hearts when he sings about love; indeed, the music itself seems to have something of the quality of the experience and therefore makes art something more than merely human.

Moreover, the artist is the type that reflects on America and why he is out of place in American institutions, and hence might be interested in other stories of loss and defeat and in the longing that is essential to the human condition. Learning and writing music may speak to young men about their situation, as well as inspire them to accept artistic enjoyments and achievements as a reward and a consolation for the fact that in America they must fail, they can never be America’s novelist or painter or architect or even musician. On the basis of this self-knowledge, artists might help other Americans, too. After all, the great outburst of talent in popular music in the twentieth century started with American global triumph in the World Wars, yet that supremacy has led to terrible conflicts within America. Leaders are constantly leading us astray and perhaps we are to blame as well; we might be better off, even wiser, with guidance from artists like Dylan.

Dylan’s writing encourages some more thought about America’s troubles and offers evidence of the ways certain songs move us. It seems to me, if anyone less famous or storied would say the same thing, he would hardly get any hearing, which is perhaps why Dylan had to write it. It’s a strange situation to be in since many of the artists and songs he talks about were once famous, but it’s nevertheless a public service to bring them back to attention and allow Americans to look back at America.

We don’t have the confidence of the mid-century and we would do well to reflect on this loss, to try to understand some of the sources of our problems. The complaints of the musicians Dylan chose for this collection, as well as the ones he adds himself, point both to the times when they were written and to us now since we rehearse many of them. Dylan makes the case through this coincidence that we should have listened to some of our artists and that we should take hope from the recurrence of human trouble since it is a sign that human nature is permanent. Dylan has grown into his old man act, and there must be some pride behind his writing, which quietly identifies his lifetime of experience with the American drama. We might listen to his stories—there’s no better way of honoring him than to learn from him.