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 famous and iconoclastic figures in the history of Western music. He transcended the mere status of a musician and became a lyrical spokesman for his time, a kind of unelected representative of what the youth of the 60s and 70s thought and felt.

Although his voice and words could often be rough and sarcastic, they were also deep and had overt spiritual, philosophical and religious undertones. There’s a good reason it won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2016.

With the release of his upcoming book “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” readers will receive a “detailed masterclass in the art and craft of songwriting,” and specific examples of his favorite tunes and of what makes them great. The book announcement says it “analyzes what it calls the easy rhyme trap, breaks down how adding a single syllable can diminish a song, and even explains how bluegrass relates to heavy metal”. Even more exciting, we’re told that while the essays “are ostensibly about music, they’re actually meditations and reflections on the human condition.”

rock versus folk

Examining the chaotic landscape of the Vietnam-era world, young people (especially those eligible for conscription) became disillusioned with power structures and classic American cultural mores. They responded to this tension in 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 who embraced peace and love as ideals and was also open to spiritual (if unconventional) ideas.

Although Dylan could lean either way, ultimately he was on the latter side and always kept the transcendent in his heart and his words.

“The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough… It had great catchphrases and catchy beats… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew when I got into folk music it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more of triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.


Dylan was an inveterate maverick. He did things his own way and didn’t seem particularly concerned about what other people thought of him, musically or otherwise. His religious thinking was no different – he tried several spiritualities for size and discarded them when they no longer suited him. (This included a five-year stint as a Christian who produced songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody.)” There appear to be three religious modalities he espoused.

The first is an association of art with spirituality – the idea that the transcendental is most likely to be found in art itself. It’s an old idea and probably why the arts started in the first place – as a vehicle to honor and experience what lies beyond our perception.

Source, CBS News

As Dylan commented to Newsweek’s David Gates, “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. It’s the plain and simple truth: I find religiosity and philosophy in music.

The second mode he discussed is closer to the classical monotheistic worldview with its notion of a singular and ultimate global force that created and sustains the universe. The Creator in this model is the one who is aware of what humanity is doing and who cares about the choices we make. It views our physical world as part of a much larger whole that contains a physical aspect and a metaphysical (or beyond matter) aspect.

dylan said to Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder,I always thought there was a higher power, it wasn’t the real world and there was a world to come.”

He also explained to 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley his constant touring schedule as part of a deal he made long ago with the “Commander in Chief – on this earth and in the world we cannot see”.

Finally, we can glimpse a particular form of monotheism in some of Dylan’s works. He was born Jewish, has several observant parents, and even went to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights in the 80s. He certainly doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but it seems clear that the feeling is there, that he takes Jewish ideas seriously, and even if with great subtlety, these ideas found their way into some of his tunes.

Dylan’s Planet Waves album was recorded in the fall of 1973, using “The Band” as their backing band 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 reviewer described it, the song projected “something hymn and heartfelt that spoke of father to Dylan”, and Dylan himself commented, “I wrote it with one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental.” The opening lyrics are:

May God bless you and keep you always
May all your wishes come true
May you always do for others
And let others do it for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb each rung
And may you stay forever young

Those familiar with the Priestly Blessing – the one recited by parents over their children every Friday night to this day – from the Book of Numbers will recognize the similarity to this opening line. It’s a beautiful feeling and a beautiful song. It’s also the one that seems to capture an unusually tender moment for Dylan. It is instructive and poignant that the words he found to express this universal parental feeling come from the heart of the Hebrew Bible.

To listen to Rabbi Jacobs’ podcast (including music) on this topic, click here.

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