A Fortnightly Review.
The Philosophy of Modern Song
By Bob Dylan
Folk Song: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs
By Greil Marcus
By ALAN WALL.
SO, WHO IS he then? We’ve had him for eight decades, and he is now making a vigorous start on his ninth, so we must surely have gleaned some notion by this time? He once said he was a song-and-dance man. Leaving out the dance part, that might be as near as we can get. He is a song-maker and performer. He has done other things. Acted and written and painted, but the reason we are truly interested in him is because of his songs. He has been at times passionately attached to Judaism and Christianity, but he seems to regard the truths of both of these traditions as valid now primarily for the songs they have yielded. The never-ending tour shows no signs of ever ending (except for one obvious terminus) and the songs keep tumbling out.
There was a time, in the mid-1960s, when he was for many the hippest guy on the planet. Three albums put him there: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. With the songs on those long-playing records, he travelled somewhere no one else ever got anywhere near going. Then came the accident, followed by some kind of withdrawal. A fair bit of mystery surrounded it all. When he re-emerged after a few years he was wearing a suit and had another voice. He had ceased to be the gypsy vagrant and become a family man. Bit by bit he found his way back into the clothes of the gypsy vagrant until, with Blood on the Tracks, he was back out on the road, looking for another joint. And behind that figure is a character from American iconography – the wanderer, the street hobo, the songsmith with a guitar slung over his shoulder, riding the freight trains, rolling on from town to town, observing the world through his innocent, if slanted, eye.
Ethel Merman, the woman who belted out ‘No business like show business’ so unforgettably, had started life as Ethel Zimmerman, but her agent thought it sounded altogether too Jewish. So they knocked off the first syllable. Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing Minnesota knocked off all the syllables, and became Bob Dylan instead. This was part of a great American tradition of losing your Jewish moniker. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had been born Elliot Charles Adnopoz, son of Abraham, an eminent doctor, who had wished his son to become a surgeon, but the lad ran away from home and joined the rodeo, then subsequently joined Woody Guthrie and became the Brooklyn cowboy, ten gallon hat and all. Irving Berlin had started life as Israel Beilin and George Gershwin had kicked off as Jacob Gershwine. When the youthful Bob hit New York he claimed he had been orphaned into the circus and rode around on freight trains. There was no mention of his old man’s furniture store or his spell at the University of Minnesota. He was finding his identity through the folk and blues tradition.
The aristocracy to aim for was the aristocracy of the road. It was the lineage described in Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. It was there in the great blues tradition of Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson. You keep on moving from town to town. Women will nearly always let you down, if you haven’t let them down first. But don’t think twice. Once you’ve been down long enough, it’ll start to feel like up to you. Anyway, keeping still is simply not an option – there’s a hellhound on your trail. And the blues are falling down like hail. On his first eponymous album, Dylan impersonated the bluesmen of old, pretty convincingly. On his own composition, ‘Song to Woody’, he has one great line, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow, but I could leave today.’ In the best blues tradition, he had stolen it.
Once Dylan started seriously writing his own stuff, he wrote songs of a sort that no one had ever written before. ‘A Hard Rain’ was a long song with the apocalyptic force of Blake. The first time Allen Ginsberg heard it, he wept: he knew the Beats had been overtaken, and that a new type of voice was calling from the concrete jungle that was New York. It is tragic in a way that his name went round the world with the song ‘Times They Are A’Changin’, for it is as near as Dylan has ever come to an entirely spurious song, a song to cheer the times along and keep the kids happy. It is hard to believe the doom-minded Dylan ever truly believed a word of it. We do know that after JFK’s assassination he found it extraordinary that people still expected him to get up and sing it as the first song of his set. He at least could see that something in the American Dream had been slaughtered along with Kennedy that day in Dallas.
Dylan’s new book is called The Philosophy of Modern Song. This could be a joke, but I fear it isn’t. Modern songs don’t have to have any philosophy, any more than the older variety did. Philosophers have philosophies; they are the only people with time enough to construct them. The rest of us make do with assemblages of notions; gatherings of thoughts; collocations of perceptions – and songs of course. Hardly any of us become coherent enough to have a philosophy. A song is composed by someone who has neither the time nor the patience to compose one. Here’s as much ontology as you are likely to get out of a song:
Give me food when I’m hungry
And a drink when I’m dry
A dollar when I’m hard up
And religion when I die.
You know this whole world is a bottle
And life’s but a dram.
When a bottle gets empty
Lord, it ain’t worth a damn.
There’s a songmaker’s ontology, soteriology, epistemology and the rest of it all rolled up into one. That’s all you need, brother. And as another song has it, if you want any more, you can sing it yourself. Dylan made a recording of that song, ‘Moonshiner’, which was never released until the Bootleg albums came along, determined to release everything, in their own good time. Dylan gives the traditional tune a fair hit. Songs don’t have philosophies. Or, if you must, there are as many philosophies as there are songs, and they could all be summarised on the back of a matchbox. It tends to be the philosophy of the last-drink saloon: that’s the last good deal gone down.
What brings all these songs together? The fact that they have knocked on the door of Dylan’s mind at one time or another – that’s it, folks. Don’t look for any other factors of unity, because there aren’t any. And Dylan very seldom has anything informative to say about any of these numbers. No musicology, or anything like that. Instead he riffs. Sometimes it’s a good riff. Sometimes it’s just like listening to a man who feels like talking while his sound system’s on. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ is a good example of a song that, like all good songs, does its own work for itself. It really doesn’t need anyone else to come along and help it out. A fellow has got himself a pair of blue suede shoes and he’s pretty pleased with them and, for the moment anyway, with himself. He warns you that you can do just about anything to his house and home, as long as you don’t tread on those shoes. Carl Perkins wrote and recorded it, but then Elvis came along and turned a song into a crucial aspect of modern culture. Dylan rambles: ‘They’re priceless and beyond monetary worth…There is no price on them, no asking price.’ Well, I suspect both Perkins and Presley knew that there was a price, and knew pretty precisely what it was. The whole point of rock and roll in the glory years of mono recordings and Sam Phillips was that you didn’t just know the price of everything, but you could sing it too. Chuck Berry may be out to romance you, but he knows the price of your milkshake, and whether or not you’re worth the candle.
One gasps at the omissions. No Beatles. No Leonard Cohen. But then…no one said this was a compendium of the popular song. Just as well. A curious thing has happened to Dylan over the last few years. He has recorded a large number of American standards, songs that are part of the popular culture. He became particularly keen on covering Frank Sinatra numbers. It is a tribute to the strength and integrity of these songs that they can survive even the wreckage of late Dylan’s voice. Somehow they still come out at the end, sometimes waving, sometimes drowning. Dylan has a great sense of phrase and pacing. And the experience can at times be like listening to late Billie Holiday – you constantly hear the old voice in what’s left of the new. God only knows what Ol’ Blue Eyes would have made of it all. He thought the whole of rock and roll was a waste of earspace anyway, though he did once duet with Elvis.
At times Dylan is brilliant, as when he discusses ‘Old Violin’ by Johnny Paycheck. Dylan is entirely involved with both singer and song, and he knows his stuff. He’s been around the music scene for a while, and he’s kept his eyes and ears open.1 All the way from Tin Pan Alley to Carnegie Hall. From a hobo’s homeless whistle to the Nobel Prize for Literature (and wasn’t that a surprise). He anticipated the highspots and what a let-down they might represent: ‘You find out when you reach the top/You’re on the bottom.’ The blues was always there before him. So there is no sense of surprise these days when we hear him singing: ‘Well it’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.’
But it must be admitted that the voice is gone. Leonard Cohen never could sing in the first place, but he learnt by the end how to talk tunefully. Dylan in his day was full-scale wailer, in the best folk tradition, but he’s down to a bronchitic croak these days. All the time his sense of the monumental achievement of the popular song grows and grows, and this book is part of his tribute to it. Let’s be clear. A vast number of popular songs are noisy rubbish, here today and gone (thank God) tomorrow. But when they work, they stay in the heart and mind, and they occupy a space inhabited by nothing else that is remotely equivalent. Listen to Ray Charles singing with Betty Carter ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, or all by himself, and amusing himself, with ‘Making Whoopee’. Or try Frank Sinatra singing ‘It was a very good year’ – his voice, as Dylan put it, like a cello. Odd that Dylan should have got round to covering some of these songs when his own voice is starting to resemble a coffee grinder.
I have recently been learning two songs: ‘When I Fall in Love’ and ‘Where Can I Go Without You’. They are both classic popular songs, exquisitely written, perfectly shaped, their tunes impeccably suited to the lyrics they embody. Even when I am not playing them, I rehearse them in my head, and their excellence astounds me. Not a note wrong. Not a word wrong. It is not easy to write with such perfect economy and grace. You have to know your own manoeuvres, and other people’s too. Dylan has not written many songs like this. His songs have tended to be lyric-heavy. I am in no doubt that ‘Desolation Row’ is a masterpiece, but it is almost impossible for anyone else to play it. The standards have not merely a universality, but also a transportability, that makes them a ceaselessly moveable feast. Jazzmen can take them on, spin them round, and turn them into pyrotechnic riffs. You can sing them a capella in the car. They can survive the sentimental maulings of drunks near midnight. In evolutionary terms, these songs are survivors. They are shaped just so, in order to make it through the labyrinth. A vast amount of skill goes into constructing those thirty-two bars. These words are not following the chords about. There is intelligence in every motion that these tight little songs make.
Dylan smashed the form of the popular song. He broke the expected rubric. He had the talent and the intelligence to then make songs outside that protocol. A lot of others didn’t. The sheer lyric energy that still flies off the discs of the mid-1960s is breathtaking. Dylan was moving at a speed which was dangerous for himself and others. Had the accident not intervened, death surely would have done. A number of Dylan’s bandmates had wondered if he might be next in line for a Texan bullet. After all, if JFK was too whacky to be allowed to live, what about this guy? In 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, he switched on the electricity, and told all the folkies it was time to jive. A lot of them never forgave him. To be fair to some of them, the sound quality at some of these gigs was truly awful. People could not hear a word Dylan was singing. I would have probably left too. I have always been acoustically inclined.
Dylan pressed on through the grand songs of his surrealist wasteland. He made great music out of it. Right at the end now he comes back to the song, often simple, homely, amenable to domestic use. He loves these little miracles, most of them American, stretching back to Stephen Foster. He seems to finger them lovingly note by note, as if giving thanks for their existence.
Greil Marcus gets off on Dylan. Dylan songs or Dylan albums send him off on entirely unpredictable flights one can’t imagine anyone else writing. He makes connections which are dependent on his vast knowledge of the popular culture of the United States. All of the essays in Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs are intriguing in their own way. At times they are revelatory. Marcus informs us of the Duluth Lynching of 1920, when three black men were killed for the rape of a white woman – a rape that might never have actually taken place. People took photographs, perhaps (speculates Marcus) they even exchanged them. Suddenly the opening of Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ takes on an entirely new significance:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors
The circus is in town.
This is a surrealist painting, but suddenly it has a historical (and horrifying) provenance, one not mentioned in the Dylan Encyclopedia. The circus plays as significant a part in Dylan’s imagination as it does in that of Dickens. For both of them the circus is a freedom (but a menacing one) inserted in the heart of the city. Here you will find the people who can really interrogate you, because they do not live according to your rules. What are their rules, precisely? That is what the whole of the song ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ tries to find out. Unsuccessfully. This is the world of defamiliarization. All is made new. And nothing is here for your comfort, Mr Jones.
Dylan is actually one of our most alarming writers. His mind is dark. How anyone ever imagined they could take comfort from it is beyond me. But the songs can give comfort, because songs do that, even at their darkest. Billie Holiday singing ‘Gloomy Sunday’ frightened broadcasters, who feared an epidemic of suicides. But the gloom of the song somehow lights a fire in the heart. That’s the wondrous oddity of songs. It’s why we carry them around inside us, like invisible treasures. It is why they might be the strongest mnemonics ever invented. One song can dissolve decades. Dylan is gathering together some of these treasures in his book. Greil Marcus has some highly intelligent things to say about Dylan’s songs in his.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.
- Don’t Look Back, the Dylan bio-doc, is here.