AWhen Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 and rudely waited a long time for a sign as to whether he was willing to accept it, a misunderstanding threatened by the award may have made him hesitate: he is a poet who also sings his poems.
But songs are something different from literature, he emphasized in his Nobel Prize lecture: “They should be sung, not read.” What happens to lyrics and music is similar to alchemy, writes Dylan in his new book “The Philosophy of Modern Songs”. . Music proves, like all art, “that one plus one is three under optimal conditions”.
As the alchemist of songwriting, Dylan refuses to subject the sixty-six songs he hand-picked to intellectual analysis. Aesthetic head births are not his thing. As a young lad, he’d put on two hundred Woody Guthrie songs before he wrote his first. This artist, of all people, who, because of his lyrics, has a loyal following of performers trailing behind him like a comet’s tail, writes in everyone’s album that songs strive “not to be understood”.
Music is an area in which the cleverness of specialists does nothing to unravel mysteries: “In fact, one could even object that the more one deals with music, the less one understands it. Take two people – one studies contrapuntal music theory, the other cries when he hears a sad song. Which of the two understands the music better?”
Lightness and depth, lankness and emotion
Dylan offers neither an autobiography along the songs of others – not a song by Woody Guthrie, not a song by Robert Johnson, not a word on Joan Baez – nor a masterclass cast in book form, which unveils the secrets of how to write a good song. He seldom quotes lyrics, and his imaginative interpretations sometimes unrestrainedly exceed the meaning of the songs. He only occasionally goes into compositional moments and performance refinements, although he always starts with the performing artist and not the composer.
Of course, that doesn’t prevent him from having an ear for the originality of the arrangements of a song by Hank Williams, recognizing the essence of electric simplicity in Jimmy Reed’s guitar playing, going into the peculiarities of Little Walter’s and Dean Martin’s singing, in bluegrass the to identify the ancestors of heavy metal and to warn beginners of songwriting against hiding behind the filigree.
Also, you shouldn’t stand in the way of a song by taking yourself too seriously: “Diaries set to music don’t guarantee a moving song.” In general, a good story has little to do with truth, and neither does a good song.
Dylan gives the reader an insight into his experiences with songs and their place in life in a serious and at the same time funny way. The charm of the precise conversational tone, trained on his own radio broadcasts, lies in the balance between lightness and depth, sluggishness and emotion. The book, which is splendidly equipped with surprising photos, comes across as light-footed. Dylan meanders between songs like “Pancho And Lefty,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Volare,” and “Strangers in the Night,” while also peddling Elvis, The Who, and The Clash a like on Willie Nelson and The Fugs.