Bob Dylan has a new book out, titled “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” in which he proffers nonlinear essays of original and freewheeling exegesis of sixty-six mostly 20th century songs. The book is a mosaic of writing and photographs, the pics spread thematically throughout the pages (many from Stock or Getty; tracking them all down to their original source would be a mountainous research climb). There is a table of contents, showing the titles of the songs, but no index. There are no footnotes.
The book should be read aloud. If you’ve heard any of Dylan’s introductions featured in his now defunct Theme Time Radio Hour, you’ll know how the orality of the work is so important to its content. I’m reading the book aloud with Susan evenings this Fall. And I created a playlist on my YouTube Music channel of the sixty-six songs, so that we can listen to each song as we read the Dylan essay on it from the book.
Dylan’s sixty-six songs don’t amount to a best-of list. Each song is approached with a creative reading and listening analysis and appreciation. But why the song was selected, made the list, fished up out of the overstocked pond of popular songs – well, I don’t know. The underlying philosophy might be that any song has a story behind the story, an environment it came out of, that warrants description and understanding and an in depth discursive discussion of its time and place, and some songs lend themselves to this kind of analysis more than others. There is a kind of, not formula, but song archetype that’s uncovered, that might teach us how better to listen.
Here’s the playlist. Give it a listen, and get the book.
I recently subscribed to the YouTube Music streaming app, and have been making playlists. There are now many music apps to choose from. I was using Tidal and before that Spotify. To the neophyte, they’re all pretty much the same, click and listen. But for messing around, collecting music, forming playlists, using the app as a reference and research tool, YouTube Music seems to be working well, with one major caveat: lack of performer credits and original recording info easily obtainable while listening – but in that regard, neither Spotify nor Tidal were much better (Prime Music has some info, but lacks detail amid glitzy formatting, while YouTube Music has imported some Wiki discussion). The YouTube Music library is huge, and the search engine responds intuitively, bringing up at least as often as not what I’m looking for, and when not, the discoveries are a pleasure.
I created a YouTube channel to post my playlists. The playlists I’m making are referenced to songs pulled from my music book collection: songs and pieces from readings from books on music, with a special emphasis on guitar.
The first two playlists I made contain pieces adapted from Jerry Silverman instruction manuals, books I’ve managed to keep around me over the years: The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide: An Instruction Manual by Jerry Silverman, Based on the Folkways Record by Pete Seeger (an Oak Publication, New York, 1962), and The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar: An Instruction Manual by Jerry Silverman (Oak Publications, New York, 1964, Library of Congress # 64-18168). These two books are similar in format, the old black and white pictures alone worth the price of admission, and include notes, tablature, chord diagrams, lyrics, musical analysis, and historical discussion.
In his introduction to his Folk-Blues guitar book, Silverman outlines his predicament at the time: “… there is more information on blues in general in the New York Public Library, for example, in German and French than there is in English!” (11). And Silverman goes on to describe the problem, how, for example, working on his 1955 New York University Master’s Thesis on blues guitar, and his book “Folk Blues” that followed, discussion was limited to piano arrangements, since it was thought that “bona fide guitar arrangements would limit the book’s general usefullness.” This should come as no surprise – Julian Bream, the classical guitarist, when studying music at the Royal College of Music, in the early 1950’s, was told to leave his guitar at home, literally. The school had no guitar classes, no guitar program; the guitar was not considered a viable, virtuous instrument. There was no academically established canon of guitar music available for study or performance. This prejudice against the instrument, in spite of its obvious public popularity, was no doubt also pervasive and included in the States in attitudes opposed to black music, initially of rock and roll music, and of folk music in general, though what is now called the American folk music revival, lasting from the 30’s to the 60’s, did much to mainstream the popularity of the guitar and of blues and folk music.
Silverman also describes his purpose as follows: “Naturally, some basis of what to listen and watch for and whom to imitate must be laid. Throwing the fledgling bluesnik into the turbulent waters of Bluesville without the necessary basic information and technique would render a distinct disservice to the general cause – not to mention the specific aspirant” (11). Of course whole rivers of water have passed under cities of bridges since Silverman’s early 1960’s comments. But the following statement explains something that has not changed: “To get to know how things really are done you must actually observe the player in action. Since there are so many individual styles one never stops learning if one can get to see as well as hear as many guitarists as possible” (Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, p. 5).
The academic bias against the folk guitar may have been somewhat justified considering Woody Guthrie’s description of his method (quoted by Silverman in Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, p. 6): “Leadbelly learnt to play the guitar the same way I did, by ‘ear’, by ‘touch’ by ‘feel’, by ‘bluff’, by ‘guessin”, by ‘fakin’ and by a great crave and drive to keep on playing.”
Well, these were real folks, with real blues. Hearing the lyrics, the stories, of these old tunes one may be surprised to learn or be reminded of how real and how blue. In creating my playlists, I want to stay true to original material but also to benefit from new styles and covers of these old songs.
Not all blues radical newfangled greens in blues blues in greens so what asphalt actually mostly walking away sweet summertime steps not very early carnival birds sing to farther extant songperch over lands & seas sands & trees trills of trains fading away full dress function over sidewalks across intersections red gold solos muted with olive tents “Ineluctable modality of…” commodities blues and greens all that is seen right under one’s nose walking to & fro stopping in 16 blues bars.
New music includes sounds we’ve never heard before, regardless of how old the tunes might be. But are we running out of the possibility for new songs? In his January 23, 2022 piece for The Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Ted Gioia, jazz musician and critic, cites marketing trends and sales stats to support his concern that “the new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.” His music world appears on the brink of a new-music mass extinction, where one can find only oldie stations on the radio. He explores a number of causes, including the lucrative business of copyright litigation that apparently follows the algorithms close enough to pair bonds and links coincidental and unintended, turning your new effort into a plagiarism accusation. But to new ears, isn’t all old music new music? Gioia also explores the new trend in buying up the rights to all the old song catalogs, an investment that presumably assumes new ears of generations of listeners to come.
Sales projections need to start somewhere, and “nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music,” Gioia says. It’s another road not taken, one with too much risk. Better to replay a setlist of Beatles than to try out a new one from the Belates.
What happens when we hear a new song, one that sounds somehow familiar yet distant, unheard before? From the opening of the novel Dance Night (1930) by Dawn Powell:
“What Morry heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far far away. This was like no music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood, a slight quickening when she met Charles Abbott, a mere wish for love racing through her veins.”
p 3. Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942. The Library of America, 2001.
When the musicologist Sam Charters introduced a new audience in 1959 to The Country Blues, the music was already as old as the hills and twice as dusty, and he found the music exec gatekeepers of the ’50s reluctant to remarket it. But had it truly disappeared, or had it been assimilated? Well, the original recordings, of which there were not too many to begin with, had for the most part disappeared. It was oldies, old-folks music, but to the young ears of the 1950s, it was new.
But there’s something else that marginalizes and renders some old music newly unmarketable. Can we imagine a Superbowl halftime where the entertainment is a solo voice self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar? A Crossroads surrounded by 100,000 yelling fans, a liminalty too loud to attract any local supernatural spirits, old or new.
What we call new music might be more accurately named recycled music. The needle often seems stuck. But there certainly are huge differences between composing a new song and covering an old one, even if the cover sounds radically new, the Ramones playing “Surf City,” for example.
Speaking of surf cities, Ted Gioia grew up in neighboring Hawthorne, almost a generation behind me though, so he probably wasn’t at the Playa del Rey beach that grad night in the mid 60s when a bunch of locals from St Bernard High were ceremoniously burning a few of their textbooks in the fire pits. That was the night I met Emitt Rhodes, a friend of my date from Bernards, both also of Hawthorne, Emitt then of The Merry-Go-Round fame. Even then he eschewed any special place in the group, but upon hearing that I played guitar, he told me you have to play your own songs, write your own stuff. He was referring to the many bands that then played high school dances featuring Top 40 covers.
“The song bewildered Morry reading Jules Verne by gaslight…It came from other worlds and then faded into a factory whistle, a fire engine bell, and a Salvation Army chorus down on Market Street.”
A house down around the block is getting a new roof, hammers echoing like giant flickers. Since the big virus outbreak the neighborhood seems quieter, fewer cars speeding up the bumpless street, the park above closed to the outdoor concerts, though a few bicycle races and random music groups have come and gone. We frequently hear music though, through the trees, over the roofs, through the backyard fences, but can’t always be sure of where the sound is coming from. No fireworks this year. Not a single yard sale. But some noise seems louder, the trash trucks on their weekly binge, the mailman at the mailbox, the yapping yellow dog behind and a yard over, skateboards, our tinnitus.
A loss of sound seems paradoxically to quicken our sense of hearing. That is dynamics, change in pressure and temperature, frequency and consistency. Some sounds we don’t hear until they go silent. Sound can baffle, bounce around dancingly. If you’re uncertain where a sound, particularly a voice, is coming from, the disorienting distraction bewilders. Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean you can’t feel it, its pressure in your ears, resounding around your head. Likewise, you might hear voices, but the words lack clarity, and you can’t make out what’s being said.
Some sounds are tight, other loose fitting. A flash flood of sound leaves a wake of mud. The beginning of rain drips into the ears, like its relative petrichor, that newly wet earthy scent in the nose, a slow awakening to something that’s been asleep for a long time and is now looking for a new bed to spend the night, one of your ears unfolding asymmetrically.
I was reading through the Wiki entry for Frank Zappa, can’t remember why, and came across this quote from his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:
The title of the Zappa book might contain a reference to the musical fake and real books, collections of a kind of shorthand lead sheets used by players as sketch or blueprints to cover pieces. These music books usually fit any song on one page, and show melody notes and chord symbols. The original fake/real books differed from songbooks in that they did not include lyrics and were mostly used by jazz players who only needed guidelines, not strict written scores that might have gone on for pages and still only approximated what one had heard or wanted to hear.
The many versions of fake and real books published over the years complicates a description; suffice to say they provide a recipe for the song, but the musician still needs to do the mixing and cooking. They don’t work like player pianos. That reading above of the title is layered below the obvious one, that so much had been said and written about Frank that he decided to sort the wheat from the chaff and clarify what the real Frank Zappa was all about. I’ve not read it, but I’ve put a copy on hold.
Meantime, what about the part of that quote that says, “all good music.” What is good? What is music?
“Out of key with his time,” Pound wrote, recognizing what might be said, regardless of form, is relegated in time, if not immediately, to the dustheap of the wasteland of the “botched civilization.” What was he trying to save? He had fallen out, had a falling out, and now has fallen even further. “Wrong from the start,” he said. Not to mention the end, the end of ages.
Only as commodity does art (music, poetry, sculpture) find its audience which values what the gatekeeper says. While art that is profane, outside the edifice, plays in the pocket, in key with its time.
We thought that had all been resolved by the Beats, where jazz and oral poetry, improvisation and play, not in big halls or while wearing wigs of beauty, but in the dive bars and rundown cafes in the skidrow of literature.
“…brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back…” (Joyce, FW).