Bob Dylan takes us on a wide-ranging tour of songs he admires

Over the course of his six decades of omnipresence in public life, Bob Dylan has manifested many guises: Guthrie-besotted roustabout, silver-tongued enfant terrible, dignified country-western crooner, world-weary gypsy, fire-and-brimstone evangelist, befuddled ‘80s artifact, and finally the sly and wizened trickster of his triumphal later years. Dylan’s penchant for personal transformation creates the eerie, quasimystical feeling that there is not one single person dwelling within the singer but several, that somehow, the strange, enchanted boy from Minnesota’s Iron Range contains all the multitudes of American music within his diminutive frame.

This notion of Dylan as oracle provides the backdrop for his new essay collection, whose delightfully portentous title, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of his mythic status: Aristotle as an A.M. radio DJ. It has 66 brief vignettes about memorable sides cut by performers ranging from the Sun Records also-ran Jimmy Wages to the 1940s multithreat Perry Como to Dylan’s old touring buddies, the Grateful Dead, to his musical inheritors, like Elvis Costello and the Clash. Some of the analyses, which can already be loose, are accompanied by brief pieces that treat the songs as creative-writing prompts.

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