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Freewheelin’ Midrash: The Philosophy of Bob Dylan
Reviewing Dylan’s Latest Alongside Greil Marcus’s ‘Folk Music: A Biography of Bob Dylan in Seven Songs’
There is no introduction to Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song telling you what he’s going to do in the coming pages. Nor is there any conclusion telling you what he did in those prior. Instead, he drops you into Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” a melancholy country number written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis about a guy who left the farm for the city and who wants to go home.
“In this song,” says Dylan, “you’re the prodigal son.” Beside the dedication and a pull quote, those are his first words in the book. They’re worth reading twice because they provide a key to unlocking all the rest.
Going into the Song
“I can see myself in others,” Dylan told a crowd of journalists in Rome in 2001. Music critic Greil Marcus leans on this revelation to explain the singer-songwriter’s long and varied career. “The engine of his songs is empathy,” says Marcus: “the desire and the ability to enter other lives, even to restage and re-enact the dramas others have played out, in search of different endings.”
In Folk Music, Marcus uses the insight to construct a biography of Dylan, draped over the skeleton of seven songs:
“Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962)
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” (1964)
“Ain’t Talkin’” (2006)
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964)
“Desolation Row” (1965)
“Jim Jones” (1992)
“Murder Most Foul” (2020)
Four of these are from the early-to-mid sixties, one from the nineties, one from the aughts, one from the twenties—just two years ago. It feels odd to narrow a biography of a man who’s lived eight decades largely into a few years of just one. Some have expressed the same complaint about Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song. What’s modern about it? Most of these songs were recorded in the fifties!
But what counts as modern for Dylan? The 2006 album from which “Ain’t Talkin’” comes is full of blues, rockabilly, and roadhouse grooves from days gone by. Yet Dylan titled that record Modern Times. What’s more, he started his career as folk artist, reinterpreting songs far, far older. Still, wade into The Philosophy of Modern Song and you’ll also see references to Zoom calls, TikTok, and Google.
He’s not exactly trying to relive his youth. Dylan just assumes music dusty enough to intrigue a Smithsonian archivist is modern. If it lasted that long, it still speaks—especially if you’re willing to enter the song, to see yourself in others, which is what Dylan does and invites us to do: “You’re the prodigal son.”
With Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Dylan unpacks the number in the second person. “You rode a train full of merchandise northbound,” he says, reflecting on the story,
and you ended up in Detroit City looking for a pot of gold, one fruitless search after another, each one taking an unexpected bad turn, and you’re exhausted—seems like you’ve been here your whole life, squandering opportunities, lost opportunities. Every day another daily dose of poison, what are you going to do?
Dylan invites us to inhabit the character of the song. That identification provides access to feelings of isolation, disappointment, and homesickness. The lyrics aren’t about someone else; they’re about you—if you’re willing to step into the song and fill out its few spare words with your complete imagination.
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This is midrash, a mode of imaginative interpretation based on the hard facts of the text but not bound to them. As he reflects on sixty-six songs, mentioning far more, Dylan works like Philo of Alexandria and the rabbis, Origen and the church fathers. He takes the reader into the song, under the song, beyond the song—wherever the lyrics cue the freewheelin’ imagination.
Sometimes those are dark turns. When it comes to “There Stands the Glass,” an even weepier country song than “Detroit City,” sung by Webb Pierce and written by Russ Hall, Mary Jean Shurtz, and Autry Griesham, Dylan slips through a gap in the verses to excavate the story.
A woman has left a man brokenhearted with no recourse but drinking. But why did she leave? It’s not her fault: Dylan imagines a man with a psychology shattered by war. The man’s a Korean War vet who’s seen things—done things—that make it impossible to for her to live with him, even though she doesn’t have the first clue about those years.
It’s all Dylan. There’s nothing in the song that signals jungle flashbacks and war crimes. “One of the ways creativity works is the brain tries to fill in holes and gaps,” as he says about another song (“CIA Man” by the Fugs). “We fill in missing bits of pictures, snatches of dialogue, we finish rhymes and invent stories to explain things we do not know.” Dylan gives the man a backstory missing in the song. It’s basic to his method; to enter the song, he has to fill it out and furnish it.
Unlike “Detroit City,” Dylan uses the third-person in his reflection here. You don’t have fully become a character to tap into their emotional makeup and motives; sometimes it’s enough to look over their shoulder. And with all that in mind you know for sure the singer is lying: it’s not his first drink today.
Where does this approach come from? It’s core to the folk-music tradition from which Dylan emerged in the early sixties, the period Marcus most intently explores in Folk Music. In fact, it’s perfect these books came out three weeks apart because it’s helpful—and fun—to read them in tandem. Marcus explains Dylan, and Dylan explains Marcus explaining Dylan.
Snapshots that Summon a Whole
What Dylan does to the American songbook, Greil Marcus does to Dylan himself. He goes into, beneath, outside, behind, and beyond Dylan’s music to reveal his character and the times that produced him. It’s a midrash on Dylan. Marcus’s narrative rambles and turns unexpected directions, moving through Dylan’s story thematically instead of chronologically, each theme suggested by the songs themselves.
Marcus uses “Blowin’ in the Wind” to chart Dylan’s arrival on New York’s folk scene, fill out his backstory, and explain the number’s reliance on an older song, “No More Auction Block,” first composed and sung during the Civil War. The folk tradition encouraged this sort of borrowing and adaptation—“love and theft” in Dylan’s words. “Blowin’ in the Wind” lived up to its inspiration, becoming an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
In The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan explores Uncle Dave Macon‘s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” performed in 1924. “This song follows its own rules,” he says, “regardless of what you think or don’t think. It has nothing to do with Aristotle’s logic.” Instead, the song presents “a series of snapshots, random images that summon up a larger whole.” He could be describing his own songs. Every time I hear “Tangled up in Blue,” for instance, I try to follow the story—only to realize afresh that each verse is a scene cut from different movies. It’s collage.
Marcus’s narrative works like Dylan lyrics: discursive, rambling, moments and scenes stitched together to reveal a greater pattern. The Dylan story unfolds as Marcus unpacks each song, but his approach is never straight ahead. Aristotle might struggle to keep up.
His lengthy treatment of Dylan’s 1992 recording of the traditional criminal ballad, “Jim Jones,” manages to nutshell the entire American folk movement: its elevation of traditional songs, its advocacy for the marginalized and downtrodden, its borrowing and development, its principal figures and talents. This was the world to which a young Dylan decided to give his life. The trouble was that Mike Seeger, half brother of Pete Seeger, could do it all better. At least, initially.
Mike Seeger had mastered the songbook and could play the traditional songs perfectly, naturally. As much as Dylan knew and had already absorbed by the start of the sixties, however, he knew he’d never measure up to Seeger if he played on his terms. So Dylan changed the game. “The thought occurred to me,” he said later, “that I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know.”
The old songs became the ingredients for the new: all those songs for which he’s deservedly famous. “A folk song has over a thousand faces,” said Dylan, “and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.” That wide exposure to humanity developed Dylan’s native ability to see himself in others. He used that “engine of empathy,” as Marcus calls it, to inject new life into old songs and craft songs of his own.
Dylan at Work
Dylan’s ability to inhabit the songs he performs also informs his critical sense, as The Philosophy of Modern Song shows on page after page. Only good students become great teachers. He’s not only the prodigal son; he’s every other figure he studies. Discussing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Dylan observes,
When you’re young, it’s hard to have enough money to have the nicest car in the neighborhood. Or the biggest house. But you just might be able to have the sharpest toes. The become a point of pride. And worth taking care of.
It’s the same reason Run DMC’s “My Adidas” works. Nor is it a silly song. It’s serious, worth fighting about; in some neighborhoods it might even be life or death. Dylan knows what’s at stake, not because he’s lived that life exactly, but because he can imagine it. He can identify with the singer and the need for status a special object confers.
Like the connection between Perkins and Run DMC, Dylan leaps over genres to highlight surprising similarities. After noting the hard-driving sound of the bluegrass band, the Osborne Brothers, he jokes, “This is speed metal without the embarrassment of Spandex and junior high devil worship.”
Dylan also goes behind the songs, telling stories of their singers and writers and the world in which they lived. While praising Townes Van Zandt, for instance, he notes the high cost of his marginal success with songs like “Pancho and Lefty.” “It put enough money in Townes’s pocket for him to poison himself,” says Dylan. “He died on New Year’s Day. Just as his idol Hank Williams had forty-four years earlier.” Suddenly, the coincidence colors not just Van Zandt’s death, but also his music and how we hear it.
All of this background helps detail the picture. But the facts don’t constrain the interpretation; they inform and ground it. They provide footholds for imagination as Dylan navigates his way through the song, though he never feels obligated to stick to the path. And, truthfully, if you want help appreciating Dylan’s own music, there’s probably no better tutor than Dylan discussing other people’s stuff.
There are some oddities. Many of these midrashic riffs rely on strings of cliches, piled up in sentences whose loyalty to the rules of grammar is beyond questionable. Still, it somehow works. Each cliche refracts one bit of light from the song he’s interpreting. While some glance off the surface, others illumine.
Dylan’s song choices and commentary match his own interpretations on stage and performed on records. “Like any other piece of art,” he says, “songs are not seeking to be understood. Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand.” It’s not what a song means but, rather, what imaginative possibilities it unlocks, what it motivates in its listeners, what feelings it creates access to.
The images and illustrations in The Philosopy of Modern Song help the process, offering a visual midrash, augmenting Dylan’s riffs and pointing the reader to additional meanings and possibilities. Text and images combine to send the mind in one direction and then another.
Some of the most interesting moments in The Philosophy of Modern Song concern that tricky adjective in the title, particularly around questions of time and tradition.
The final song Dylan treats is Dion’s “Where and When,” a Rodgers and Hart number that glances back at the title. “Music,” says Dylan, “is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself.” Earlier in the book, while talking about The Who’s “My Generation,” he says,
Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before with the same arrogance and ego-driven self-importance that the previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them. . . . Each generation seems to have the arrogance of ignorance, opting to throw out what has gone before instead of building on the past.
Perhaps he’s worried what will happen to his own musical legacy. Or maybe he’s urging us to recognize the rich humanity of the past to help us preserve our own. He warns that “people confuse tradition with calcification.” Meanwhile, he says, “The past has a way of showing up in front of you and coming into your life without being called.”
Music is one of its avenues, and Dylan’s philosophy prepares us to listen.
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