The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, gives us his take on 66 different songs, delivered by means of a variety of quasi-poetic riffs and short essays. And that’s certainly what it is: his take. This is an intensely personal collection of writings. Dylan’s always been known for being guarded (although I think that theme’s been overdone at times). It is striking, however, that he seems here at his most relaxed and open, just writing about songs and what they mean to him, in addition to following some of the tangents they proffer.

The stream-of-consciousness pieces toss out images, characters and scenarios that the songs evoke for Bob, and these are quite rich and far reaching (as great songs can be when they work in our soul). The prose essays generally make for spirited good reading, with amusing and sometimes ornery digressions from the topic of the song in question. On occasion, however, there are lines that are jarringly boilerplate in nature.

Bob Dylan is clearly a consummate fan of popular music, and other brands as well. That was revealed for anyone who needed to know it years back when he hosted the delightfully contrived radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” putting a hundred odd episodes in posterity’s can. Doubtless the commentary he came up with for the records he played then led to the idea for this book (and indeed a number of the people involved with the production and packaging of the book are former collaborators on “Theme Time Radio”).

Later, he recorded those Sinatra songbook albums: five LPs worth of popular songs from the pre-rock’n’roll era, put down with breathtaking passion and a stunning level of artistry.

Dylan can in fact be presumed to have the kind of gargantuan music collection—accompanied by books about his favorite performers—that, after he kicks the bucket, will cause his next-of-kin to curse him as they have to haul it out to the sidewalk for the Sanitation Department to pick up. He’s obviously one of those people who can listen to music in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and the deep dark night. As music fans ourselves, we can relate to that. Songs, records, favorite performers: they’re with us through bad times and good, through our childhood, stormy adolescence, love affairs and heartbreaks, successes and setbacks, the dreams realized, and the ones hopelessly lost. Many of the same recordings sound subtly different to us as the years and decades pass; this is due, perhaps, not only to the loss of frequencies in our hearing, but also our ever-deepening appreciation, through life experience, of what those songs were and are about.

Dylan, naturally, is the same. “The Philosophy of Modern Song”? (Not even “a” philosophy, mind you, but the philosophy.) The portentous title is a diversion and a gag, very typical of Bob. I would suggest that a more accurate (but somewhat less amusing) title would be, “The Joy I Have Found in Music”—by Bobby Zimmerman. He could have written this book if he’d never become Bob Dylan (although he is very unlikely to have found a publisher). It is not an attempt to offer a definitive or objective take on anything. It is not some deeply researched and scrupulously footnoted tome that would be part of a college curriculum on popular music (not that those can particularly be trusted either). It certainly is a love letter to the music that has meant so much to him.

Most of us will never get to sit down and have a conversation with Bob Dylan about music, or anything else, but much of what is in this book evokes those conversations we may have with longtime friends and fellow musical aficionados, oddball or otherwise. We share favorites, we trade takes, we make some statements that are serious, and others that are for laughs. We recall details and trivia that we read somewhere in a book that’s no longer in print, or that we heard someone say on the radio who-knows-how-many years ago. We share some of how a record affects us, where we were when we first heard it, why this version of the song is so much better than someone else’s version—what it all may mean. We argue and BS and laugh and come out of it all a little bit expanded, somehow.

Along the way, we might feel moved to jump on top of the couch and forcefully advocate for something we know no one else will agree with, just because we feel called in the moment to do so.

“Perry Como lived in every moment of every song he sang […] When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every word.” (page 13)

Other times we’ll slip in something deep and meaningful to ourselves—then quickly move on lest we choke up.

“The greatest of the prayer songs is ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ None of these songs come even close.” (page 184)

And other subjects will come and go and we’ll take them on with our pearls of wisdom and one-liners.

“People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.” (page 317)

We might get passionate and genuinely angry.

“But divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonds […] They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?” (page 118) Then we sip our drink, light a cigarette, and propose our ingenious solution to the entire problem of divorces and broken families: polygamy! For both sexes.

Then a record comes on—“Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and we go back to the music, and to contemplating just why this particular record is so damn good.

“The song seems slower than it is because Hank doesn’t let the band lead him. The tension between the chug of the near-polka rhythm and the sadness in Hank’s voice drives it home.” (page 166)

I think that you could approach this book just as that kind of conversation with Bob, where he is speaking to you as his intimate friend. Sometimes he’s being serious, and sometimes he’s winding you up. Except here you’re only getting his side of the conversation. You can feel free to interject your responses and/or objections. Bob won’t hear you, but he’ll be glad you bought the book.

Absent the photos and other paraphernalia, this would be a lightweight tome, and I imagine some critics will dismiss the content as lightweight too. Still, some very lovely things can weigh very little: a butterfly, a snowflake, a fine cigar. For those who appreciate it, there’s plenty to enjoy in this very personal little book by Bob, and all the more if one doesn’t squint painfully at it and take it all too seriously. The breathless declarations by the publisher along the lines that it is “a momentous artistic achievement” may be doing it a disservice in that respect, but so goes the never-ending hype machine.

Dylan does know a lot of stuff about music, of-course, and so there are some genuinely revelatory moments. And, unlike most of us, he actually has met and been friendly with quite a few of the artists he writes about here. It’s notable, however, that he never leans on that personal experience in the text. There’s no: “as Frank Sinatra confided to me when he had me over for dinner,” or: “I have it on good authority from Johnny Cash himself …”. He limits himself to the evidence of the songs and recordings themselves, and what is, generally speaking, the public record.

Will anyone learn “the philosophy of modern song” by reading this book? Well, taken as a whole, you probably would soak up some of whatever that is, because it’s surely in between the lines here somewhere. But I also think it’s the same thing you’d soak up by just listening to the truly great popular music of the past one hundred years: living with it, learning of it, crying with it, moving to it, and treasuring it as the dear and faithful friend it can surely be through time.

That’s what Bob Dylan did.

Hook, Line and Singer: A Singalong Book by Cerys Matthews

Hook, Line & Singer Cerys Matthews

Hook, Line and Singer by Cerys MatthewsHook, Line and Singer: A Singalong Book is a 288 page, hardcover tome being released imminently via Penguin. It’s a songbook which has been put together by Welsh singer and raconteur Cerys Matthews, of whom we’ve become big fans lately at the Cinch HQ. This isn’t a review, as I don’t have the book [*see ADDENDUM below], but merely an honorable mention for something that looks charming. By all accounts, the book presents a wide collection of beloved songs in an easily playable and singable format, with the goal of encouraging folk—especially families with young children—to make their own music, turning off for a while the auto-tuned plastic product that assaults us all the time on the airwaves. It also includes background and commentary on the songs, alternate translations and the like.

But you can listen below via YouTube to Cerys Matthews talk about Hook, Line and Singer, and also about her literary hero (Dylan Thomas), her musical hero (Bob Dylan) and music in general. Also you can hear a snippet of one of the songs in the book, namely the gospel classic “Down by the Riverside.”

*Addendum July 10th: Since writing the above I have bought a copy and shared it with two nieces on a recent family visit. It was a big hit, and looks certain to be used a great deal in the future. What makes it an especially wonderful songbook is the breadth of genres covered, with movie songs such as from “The Wizard of Oz,” folk songs, gospel songs, Americana, melancholy songs and funny songs. From “Edelweiss” to “Home On The Range” to “Whistle While You Work” and “On Top of Old Smokey” … it’s just a really well-chosen collection that has something for any mood, and some quite unusual things too. And then to have the little essays and stories accompanying each song is superb, because it puts them in some kind of context, instead of just tossing them out there helplessly. I was not in the least disappointed. It is a beautifully put-together book and a wonderful gift.


Rumsfeld Rules: Known and Unknown

The Cinch Review

Rumsfeld Rules
I haven’t finished reading the book, so this is not a proper review, as such. But, based on leafing through this 815 page tome, and having now begun reading it properly from the beginning, it’s safe to say a few things about it right off the bat. It is a monumental work, quite unlike your average book from a political figure, memoir or otherwise.

I expect it will be characterized in the near term by critics based largely on political bias: Rumsfeld’s many enemies, both on the left and right, will give it short shrift. His friends — a subset of the political right in America — will laud it. Continue reading “Rumsfeld Rules: Known and Unknown

Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems

The Cinch Review

Samuel Menashe

A few years ago, at the age of eighty, Samuel Menashe became the first recipient of the “Neglected Masters Award” from The Poetry Foundation.

And a master he is, without much doubt. I suppose that almost any worthy contemporary poet might qualify to be described as “neglected,” at least relatively speaking. After all, in these modern times when our entertainment comes buzzing down wires at the speed of light directly into our veins and our neurons, even to slow down sufficiently to pick up and read a book of poetry is to flirt with a possibly fatal whiplash injury.

Nonetheless, Samuel Menashe’s work has a kind of quiet power that can cut through even the noise and confusion of this over-stimulated world, and I think that to neglect his poetry is to neglect one of those gifts of Providence that is surely intended to ease the road down which our modern human souls struggle. His best work is at once accessible and profound, possessing both instantaneous charm and innumerable layers of meaning which reflect and glitter anew upon each fresh reading.

Among the things of which Samuel Menashe is the master is the short poem. The 19th century poet and critic Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That no doubt applies to most poems and to much else in life. However, although Menashe is known to revise and even further pare his own poetry, it is very difficult for any reader to look at one of his fantastically concise and intense poems and consider it anything other than a perfectly balanced and finished work.

Take this poem as an example (published in the book and at this link):

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

That is, I think, an astounding and poignant — yet restrained — evocation of age and of the aging man himself. It lifts up the gifts that aging brings along with it, and subtly pleads the case for treasuring the aged (I am a sage) while not denying but instead subversively confronting the decay of the body: Sprinkled, shaking. And it does this and more while at the same time gently and humorously interweaving all of those images of seasoning and spice, and all in an absolute total of just twenty-four words.

Readers of poetry are probably not in the habit of thinking what better words a poet could have used. However, even if you were so inclined, where could you consider altering even a syllable of that poem? It is at once rigidly economical and yet perfectly soft to the tongue. To move even a few letters, it would seem, might bring the whole thing tumbling to the floor like a stack of soup cans in a supermarket.

Indeed, in his introduction to this collection, the learned editor Christopher Ricks zeros in on things that can be seen going on in Menashe’s poetry even at the level of the individual letter, and I think that is not necessarily a ridiculous thing to do. He takes as his example a two-line work of Menashe’s:

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout

Ricks says:

See how the word pot pours itself out into “poured out.” See how, fulfilled but not done with, the word is poured forth again: pot living again within “spout.” But these are not the only fulfillments: how fluidly “out” is taken up, without damage or distortion, effortlessly, within “spout.” Not just le mot juste but la lettre juste. For Menashe (mindful that he is grateful to Britain for first publishing a book of his, as it had done for Robert Frost) has pointed out that his is precisely an American poem. British English, in adopting the spelling “fulfils,” would forfeit the full acknowledgment of the word “fills” that American English proffers so calmly in “fulfills.”

Talk about a close reading. It cannot get much closer than that, and yet, the poetry can bear it.

As Ricks indicates, Samuel Menashe is an American poet who writes American poetry. He lives in New York City, by all accounts a simple existence (almost absurdly apt for the neglected poet) in the same old tiny walk-up apartment he has occupied for many decades. The personality and physicality of his living space makes an appearance at times in his poems, as do occasional meditations on city scenes.

Menashe is also a Jewish man. Dana Gioia (himself a poet) has written well on how this manifests itself in his poetry:

It is impossible to discuss Menashe’s poetry without remarking on its Jewishness. His imagery, tone, and mythology is drawn from the poets of the Old Testament. “The Shrine Whose Shape I am” is one of the finest poems on Jewish identity ever written in English. It is also a poem that shows the rich multiplicity that typifies Menashe’s language. The poem defines Jewishness simultaneously in mystical and biological terms. “Breathed in flesh by shameless love,” the speaker was torn from his parents’ bodies, and his body contains the history of his people. “There is no Jerusalem but this” means, among other things, that his Jewishness is not found in a geographical place but in himself. His body is the lost temple (“the shrine”) of his people, his bones the hills of Zion. This sonorous poem may seem difficult at first, but once the reader grasps the central metaphor, its complex message becomes immediately tangible.

If Menashe’s spiritual roots are Hebrew, the soil that nourishes them is the English language. His Old Testament is preeminently the King James Version, and among his sacred poets there is not only David, Isaiah, and Solomon, but also Blake, and even perhaps Dylan Thomas. (He also frequently alludes the Gospels.) His range of allusion is narrow but extraordinarily deep. The Bible permeates his poetry, but he uses it in ways that most readers will immediately understand.

God is effectively omnipresent in Menashe’s poetry, while seemingly never named. I think that the reader nevertheless is aware of which name (or names) would be applied to this God if such intimacy were to be indulged. One of his poems even alludes to the existence of those names without using them, in a rare overt address:

O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face

(Then again, the reader might question if it is the poet himself addressing God here, or if he is rather evoking a hymn of praise which he hears the creation singing to its Creator. And then, the foretelling of treasons to cease when once at last that face is seen …)

A reader may find praise of that Many Named Beloved between the lines and the letters of so many of Menashe’s tiny, concentrated works. You might say that some of the poems resemble abbreviated psalms written by a so much more sly and discreet psalmist. Yet, that humble praise for the Creator and thankfulness for the gift of life which permeates the poetry does not preclude intense and painful meditations on loss and on mourning, and an underlying deep and even melancholy yearning. Neither does it preclude humor and indeed mischievousness. One of my favorite poems by Samuel Menashe is the following one, with which I close this self-evidently enthused and unreservedly positive review:


Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Forget tomorrow
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed

This book is published by the Library of America and can be purchased at the link below:

Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems (American Poets Project)

Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
10 Out Of 10 Lead Pipes
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!

Addendum: Watch a short interview segment with Samuel Menashe below.

Samuel Menashe (from Life is IMMENSE) from Neil Astley on Vimeo.

An expanded edition of the book can now be purchased, along with the DVD from which the above clip is taken, at this link: New and Selected Poems (Book & DVD)