Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song”: Playlists: Part Two

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.

The 66 songs from The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, 1 Nov 2022.

What to do

“Nothing to be done,” Didi and Gogo bicker, essentially about what to do, like an old couple of a long suffering, loving marriage. Nature is no refuge; the one tree in their world seems sick. They can’t go anywhere, for fear of missing their appointment with Godot. They hang out and talk, express various physical complaints, visit the past, ask questions they can’t answer.

The play, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” is famously about nothing. Nothing fills the stage, informs the dialog. If they carried cell phones, their batteries would surely be dead. In any case, they’ve no one to call, and no one to call them.

The two (often described as tramps, bums, or hoboes of some kind, clowns of some sort, lost from their circus, or stripped to being human without diversion down-and-outs) might be among the last few of a pandemic, or simply retired, their pensions just enough to enable them to do nothing but talk freely, which is everything in a world of nothing.

It’s not easy – doing nothing. Even contemplating nothing can be a nerve-racking business, fraught with anxiety. Consider, for example, what nothing is. Nothing is what is not. In the beginning – well, just before the beginning, all was nought, and from naught came all.

And it’s not easy doing nothing responsibly. nān thing. And yet, if you make a practice of it, you are called a do nothing. But there is no such thing as nothing. Nature overkills. If the universe is infinite, and the universe is composed of things, there can be nothing within, and nothing without.

Consider a bottle out of which you suck everything, leaving nothing, and you cap it, a bottle of nothing. Would it be dark in there? Like dark matter? For if everything is taken out, light too must be absent. If scarcity creates value, what could be more precious than nothing? And Didi and Gogo are its brokers.

An Approach to Stylelessness

Language, the dress of thought,
words its buttons.
What are we trying to cover?

The dress interprets
the body,
its own reveal, skin and hair,
apparently lacking

something necessary
to complete the ensemble,
where sound means

Dress, the body licensed
for use, the slow decay
its words describe,
its missing buttons.

Excerpt from a Conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre and B. F. Skinner

BFS: “Man is perhaps unique in being a moral animal, but not in the sense that he possesses morality; he has constructed a social environment in which he behaves with respect to himself and others in moral ways.”

JPS: “I can bring moral judgment to bear.”

BFS: “The essential issue is autonomy. Is man in control of his own destiny or is he not?”

JPS: “Man makes himself. He isn’t ready made at the start. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose. In that way, you see, there is a possibility of creating a human community.”

BFS: “Behaviorism does not reduce morality to certain features of the social environment; it simply insists that those features have always been responsible for moral behavior. Man continues to build machines which dehumanize him. He can remedy these mistakes and build a world in which he will feel freer than ever before and achieve greater things.”

JPS: “We do not believe in progress. Man is always the same. I am responsible for myself and for everyone else.”

BFS: “Why do people behave as they do? It became a matter of understanding and explaining behavior. It could always be reduced to a question about causes.”

JPS: “It’s all quite simple. He can’t start making excuses for himself. There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. We have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. Man is condemned to be free. There are no omens in the world. No general ethics can show you what is to be done. This theory is the only one which gives man dignity.”

BFS: “Control is another matter. Refusing to look at causes exacts its price. The behaviorist has a simpler answer. What has evolved is an organism, part of the behavior of which has been tentatively explained by the invention of the concept of mind. No special evolutionary process is needed when the facts are considered in their own right.”

JPS: “There is no human nature. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Man is responsible for what he is. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. It is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.”

BFS: “A scientific analysis of behavior must assume that a person’s behavior is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories rather than by the person himself as an initiating, creative agent.”

JPS: “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. There does exist a universal human condition.”

BFS: “We often overlook the fact that human behavior is also a form of control. No mystic or ascetic has ever ceased to control the world around him; he controls it in order to control himself. We cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.”

JPS: “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. What complicates matters is that there are two kinds of existentialist; first, those who are Christian, and on the other hand the atheistic existentialists, and then the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”

BFS: “The major difficulties are practical. In any case we seem to be no worse off for ignoring philosophical problems.”

(This invented converstation was created with quotes blended from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” with Skinner’s “About Behaviorism.”)