Skip to content

‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’

The second photograph you see when you open Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is one of the reasons I don’t entirely resent having paid the £35 the book costs. It shows a group of customers in a record shop, surrounded by boxes and displays of 78rpm discs. There’s no caption, but there’s a clue in a poster on the wall saying “Dolphin’s Hit Parade”, followed by a list of songs. So this is Dolphin’s of Hollywood, the record shop opened by the black entrepreneur John Dolphin in South Central Los Angeles in 1948. Its frontage was on Vernon Avenue, near the corner with Central Avenue – the main stem of black LA in that era, thanks to nearby night spots like the Club Alabam, the Turban Room, the Downbeat, Elks Hall and Jack’s Basket Room. Dolphin’s opening hours — 24 hours a day, including Sundays — were pioneering, as was a buy-one-get-one-free deal. The titles on the poster — deciphered with the aid of a magnifying glass — tell you that this is the spring of 1952, which is when “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by the Lloyd Price Orchestra was released on the Specialty label, along with “One Mint Julep” by the Clovers (Atlantic), “Night Train” by the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest (United) and “My Heart’s Desire” by the vocal duo Jimmie Lee and Artis with Jay Franks and his Rockets of Rhythm (Modern)*.

John Dolphin had originally tried to open a business in Hollywood, but was denied the opportunity on the grounds of his colour. So, locating instead in the heart of the black community, he gave the shop a semi-ironic title, soon adding a record label of his own, called Recorded in Hollywood, whose output included early recordings by the Hollywood Flames and Jesse Belvin. His business, and others in the neighborhood, were so successful that they began to attract white customers, which in turn brought threats from white competitors to such a degree that in 1954 he organised a protest against their campaign of intimidation. In 1958 he was shot dead in his office by a disappointed singer named Percy Ivy, in the presence of two soon-to-be-famous white teenagers, Sandy Nelson and Bruce Johnston, who had been trying to get him interested in their music. In the photograph, John Dolphin is the man in the dark suit under the picture of Billy Eckstine.

None of this information is to be found in the book, in which Dylan discusses 66 other songs. You’ve probably already read about it (I recommend Dwight Garner in the New York Times or Craig Brown in Private Eye), so I’m not going to try and review it properly. It’s easy to describe. Most of his choices get two chunks of prose: first, an outpouring of feelings and images provoked by the recording in question, followed by a historical note, all illustrated by a selection of images that range from the relevant to the tangential or allusive. Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, for instance, gets a description of the boss class (“You’re the famous Chieftain, the enormous tight fisted penny pincher who treats all the workers like errand boys”) followed by a short description of Reed’s music (“You put him with Jimmie Rodgers and Thelonious Monk, two other musicians whose work never sounds crowded no matter how many players are there” and “He plays the harmonica through a neck rack. And you can’t do much with a harmonica in a neck rack” — really? Bob should go back and listen to his own live recordings from 1965 and ’66. Or maybe he’s putting us on). There are pictures of Reed, of Brando in The Godfather, and Elvis Presley — unmentioned in the text — with Colonel Tom Parker, who is pretending to play an acoustic 12-string guitar and is presumably there to represent boss men in general.

The criteria by which Dylan chose the songs are never made clear. Many are from his childhood in the pre-rock era. Others seem to have been plucked at random. As many have already pointed out, in some bafflement, only a tiny handful are by women. But the specifics don’t seem to be important: they are there to give Dylan the chance to vent. Where people with synaesthesia experience music as colour, Dylan seems to experience a song as a set of feelings that may or may not be triggered by anything explicit in the song itself, arising instead from his own imagination, his memories, fears, fantasies. Or perhaps that’s quite wrong. Perhaps he’s just making it up, and why not? At any rate, while working your way through one laboured exegesis after another, you may find yourself thinking that he’d be better employed fashioning them into songs of his own.

Soon after I started reading The Philosophy of Modern Song, I found I wasn’t enjoying it very much. It isn’t anywhere near the standard of his brilliant sleeve note for World Gone Wrong in 1993 or the considered thoughts on music expressed in several interviews in recent years. It didn’t seem to be telling me anything original or important. As for a “philosophy of modern song”, the closest he gets to that is his claim that a song’s true value resides in the listener’s response to it, which I guess is the book’s raison d’être, or at least its excuse. So I thought I’d try it from another angle. On the basis of having loved his Theme Time Radio Hour programmes largely because of the sound of his voice, I spent another few quid on the audiobook, only to discover that most of the reading is done by famous actors, from Jeff Bridges to Sissy Spacek. Why would I want to hear that? When Dylan does appear, his voice sounds weirdly remote, losing all the warmth and intimacy of the radio series. And there are times, to be blunt, when he sounds like he’s reading someone else’s research. So I’ve given up on that, too, at least for now.

Whatever the contentious origins of its component parts, Chronicles Vol 1 was a proper book, the product of craft and concentration. Which The Philosophy of Modern Song definitely isn’t. It’s inessential, a coffee-table book to be given as a Christmas present. Clearly he didn’t fancy writing Chronicles Vol 2 — perhaps, who can tell, because he knows that’s what we want.

* Correction: In the original post, “My Heart’s Desire” was credited to the Wheels, whose recording was not released until 1956. The recording by Jimmie Lee and Artis was released on the LA-based Modern label in early 1952.

* Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is published by Simon & Schuster. The audio version is available from The copyright in the photograph above is owned by the Michael Ochs Archive via Getty Images.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well, going back to Tarantula, Zimmy’s never been averse to taking money for old rope. In fact, you could say that’s been his main job since Blood on the Tracks. The picture is lovely, though. Jimmy Forrest’s Night Train was the song to which Sonny Liston trained. By the time the fixes went in against Ali, he’d switched to the more stuttering rhythm of James’s version.

    November 20, 2022
  2. Hi Richard, I went straight for the audio-book, and have been listening to it in the car on long journeys, as one would a pop song, not seeking out profundity. It’s about pop songs, so that feels appropriate. The choice of a cavernous audio sound for Bob, as opposed to the closer mic’ed actors… well it’s OK, he is in black and white and they are in colour. There are some pearls in there, and plenty of humour and irony (he is among other things a classic Jewish humourist, remember “Don’t Look Back” and so much else), and of course the mention of Jimmy Reed’s limited range on the harmonica is a put-on. He has always been putting us on. As is the title of the book I would venture. The ‘philosophy’ of ‘modern song’ is a reflection of the relative poverty of our culture. It’s a hazy, slap-dash book, and I like that. He does touch on the transcendent at various times, as if that were present in the music he is celebrating as much as the surface we become attached to. The most powerful moment in the second of the two gigs I went to (Bournemouth, incandescent as it gets), and Oxford (very good but not the fire he is capable of), was “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody”. I remember writing about ‘born again’ Dylan in the New Statesman when “Slow Train Coming” first came out, and suggesting that this sudden ‘betrayal’ by our counter-cultural hero was entirely logical. The revolution was to be in the heart and soul. He was always possessed by the spirit. He certainly was in Bournemouth. As I was too! There are plenty of moments while listening to the audiobook, when he loses me. I get bored. He’s never been perfect and we do him an injustice in expecting that he should be. That Nobel didn’t help. The absence of women singers, though, is very strange indeed. But hey, I’m enjoying his very personal take on it all, disovering songs I didn’t know, re-evaluating artists I ignored.

    November 20, 2022
  3. harvey kubernik #

    I also have the feeling he at times phoned this in although he was working on it for a decade. And, Eddie G. listed seems to have done the heavy lifting on track downs along with staff initiating or doing the license of photos. I was happy with a lot of the selections like Johnnie Taylor and John Trudell, but I was hoping he was doing an audio “Chronicles 2” and I’m not buying any audio book, where it appears he was a guest on his own endeavor.

    November 20, 2022
  4. bren333 #

    I like it. I feel that he gets inside the songs and gives us more of an idea about what he thinks a song is. It hasn’t changed my life, but I’ve known many books to be a lot less enjoyable.

    November 20, 2022
  5. Bang on target about Dolphin’s Of Hollywood and thanks for letting us know that was the great man in the suit in the photo. Bruce Johnston talks about the shooting every time a pal of mine has been around him and I can see how it made a helluva introduction to the record industry. Check out the Dave Alvin song Boss Of The Blues for a string soundtrack to this fine blog.

    November 20, 2022
  6. I found it hard to finish. He’s so cogent in interviews but this is wild. As the NY Times reviewer says (thanks for the tip off) you could easily switch some of the entries and not spot the difference. I wonder if the publisher was expecting Chronicles 2.

    November 20, 2022

    You may have saved me £35 – thanks! More importantly, I have been looking through my collection of doo-wop compilations to see if I already have ‘My Heart’s Desire’ by the Wheels; I’ve drawn a blank. It is a beauty, but was it released in 1952? I may be wrong but all the listings I’ve looked at give a 1956 release date.

    November 21, 2022
    • Thanks, Graham. I’ll check the date again.

      November 21, 2022
    • You’re correct. “My Heart’s Desire” wasn’t the by the Wheels but by the vocal duo Jimmie Lee and Artis on the Modern label. I’ve corrected it. Thanks again.

      November 22, 2022

        It’s a happy misattribution, Richard; I’m very glad to have been introduced to the Wheel’s single with the same title, so many thanks for that.

        November 22, 2022
  8. Gary Booth #

    It sounds like £35 would be better spent on the 3 CDs of music from Dolphin’s of Hollywood put out by Ace Records.

    November 21, 2022
  9. Hank Davis #

    Definitely a good idea to check that 1952 date. The Wheels’ record you include appeared on the Linden New Jersey version of Premium records, which didn’t even open until 1955. My Heart’s Desire was released in 1956.

    November 21, 2022
    • Yep. As I’ve noted in a reply to Graham Roberts, I got the wrong version. The one on Dolphin’s list must have been the Modern release by Jimmie Lee and Artis. I’ve corrected it and added a link. Thanks.

      November 22, 2022
  10. Richard, thanks so much for the opening riff about Dolphin’s of Hollywood. As a native Angelino, I heard ads for it on the radio but ventured there. My store was Sam’s Records, on the south side of Adams Blvd., just west of Crenshaw Blvd. This was already LP time, so I can’t recall any 78s. Maybe. I do know that Joe Adams, soon to be Ray Charles’s manager, did his radio show for, I think, KBCA-FM, out of booth in the front window. All the current jazz LPs could be found here. Cheers.

    November 22, 2022
  11. Loved the Dolphin’s of Hollywood story, which was new to me.

    November 27, 2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: