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Bob Dylan and the Philosophy of Modern Song
Reflections on the music and spirituality of a rock legend.
Bob Dylan is one of the most celebrated and iconoclastic figures in the history of Western music. He transcended simple musician status and became a lyrical spokesperson for his time period - a kind of unelected representative of what the youth of the 60s and 70s were thinking and feeling.
Though his voice and words could often be rough-edged and snarky, they were also profound and had overt spiritual, philosophical, and religious undertones. There’s a good reason he won the Noble Prize in Literature in 2016.
With the release of his forthcoming book “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” readers will be given a detailed, “master class on the art and craft of songwriting,” and specific examples of his favorite tunes and what makes them great. The book announcement says that he “analyzes what he calls the trap of easy rhymes, breaks down how the addition of a single syllable can diminish a song, and even explains how bluegrass relates to heavy metal.” Even more exciting, we are told that while the essays “are ostensibly about music, they are really meditations and reflections on the human condition.”
Rock vs Folk
In surveying the chaotic landscape of the Vietnam-era world young (especially draft-eligible) people became disillusioned with classical American power structures and cultural mores. They responded to this tension in one of two ways. The first was the kind of radicalism that was on display at the 1968 Democratic Convention or in militant groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. The second was the classic “hippie” model that embraced peace and love as ideals and that was also open to spiritual (if non-conventional) ideas.
Though Dylan could lean in both directions, ultimately, he was in the latter camp and always kept the transcendent in his heart and words.
“The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway, it wasn't enough...There were great catchphrases and driving pulse rhythms...but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Dylan was an inveterate nonconformist. He did things his own way and didn’t seem especially concerned about what others thought of it, musically or otherwise. His religious thinking was no different - he tried multiple spiritualities on for size and discarded them when they no longer suited him. (This included a five-year stint as a Christian that produced songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody.)” There seem to be three religious modalities that he espoused.
The first is an association of art with spirituality - the idea that the transcendental is most apt to be found in the art itself. This is an ancient idea and probably the reason that the arts got started in the first place - as a vehicle to honor and experience that which lies beyond our perception.
Source, CBS News
As Dylan commented to David Gates of Newsweek, “Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music.”
The second mode that he’s discussed is closer to the classical monotheistic worldview with its notion of a singular, ultimate overarching force that created and sustains the universe. The Creator in this model is one who is aware of what humanity is up to and cares about the choices we make. It views our physical world as a part of a much broader whole that contains a physical aspect and one that’s metaphysical (or beyond matter).
Dylan said to Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone, “I've always thought there's a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there's a world to come."
He also explained to Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes his constant touring schedule as part of a bargain he made a long time ago with the "chief commander—in this earth and in the world we can't see.”
Finally, we can catch glimpses of a particular brand of monotheism afoot in some of Dylan’s work. He was born Jewish, has several observant relatives, and even went to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights back in the 80s. He certainly doesn’t wear it on his sleeve but it seems clear that the sentiment is there, that he takes Jewish ideas seriously, and though it’s with a good deal of subtlety, these ideas have made their way into some of his tunes.
Dylan’s album Planet Waves was recorded in the fall of 1973, using “The Band” as his backing group as they rehearsed for a major tour. The album included two versions of "Forever Young", which became one of his most popular songs. As one critic described it, the song projected "something hymnal and heartfelt that spoke of the father in Dylan", and Dylan himself commented: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental." The opening lyrics are:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young
Those who are familiar with the Priestly Benediction - one that is recited by parents over their children each Friday night to this day - from the Book of Numbers will recognize the similarity with that opening line. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a beautiful song. It’s also one that seems to capture an unusually tender moment for Dylan. It’s instructive and poignant that the words he reached for to convey this universal parental sentiment came from the heart of the Hebrew Bible.
To hear Rabbi Jacobs’ Podcast (including music) on this topic click here.