Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times”

modern times cover

“Taxi, New York at Night” by Ted Croner, 1947

I recently read a book called “The Dilemma of Modern Belief”. written in 1963 by Samuel H. Miller who was the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. When I read the following I immediately thought of the cover of “Modern Times.”

How can any poet, or artist, or prophet speak to people whose sight is caught in a horizontal blur of speed and never has a chance to probe beneath the surface of the thing seen, to the level where it may touch the substance in which seemingly separate and discrete things are bonded together in a union of mystery and meaning? In such a way of living there is no adequate time to develop the potential that merely registers as a “passing” experience and disappears into limbo without divulging its substance or significance. An image of reality is impossible under such circumstances. (p. 34)

Thus it seems that Bob Dylan chose an excellent photograph for the cover of “Modern Times,” which included a collection of songs many of which certainly seem decisively un-modern thematically and musically. Dylan, writing of old time folk music in Chronicles, Vol. 1, said that

I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom…It was so real, more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. (p. 236)

In the liner notes to his 1993 collection of old time songs, “World Gone Wrong,” Dylan said

LONE PILGRIM is from an old Doc Watson record. what attracts me to the song is how the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside at some given point. salvation & the needs of mankind are prominent & hegemony takes a breathing spell. “my soul flew to mansions on high” what’s essentially true is virtual reality. technology to wipe out truth is now available. not everybody can afford it but it’s available. when the cost comes down look out! (note: the punctuation is as printed)

I think that these quotations suffice to demonstrate that Dylan has been showing the loss of meaning in our modern era by using contrast, through his sustained concentration upon older “archetypical” songs and themes. I’ll conclude this post with another quote from the liner notes of “World Gone Wrong” where Dylan calls our “Modern Times” the “New Dark Ages.”

BLOOD IN MY EYES is one of two songs by the Mississippi Sheiks, a little known de facto group whom in their former glory mustve been something to behold. rebellion against routine seems to be their strong theme. all their songs are raw to the bone & are faultlessly made for these modern times (the New Dark Ages) nothing effete about the Mississippi Sheiks. WORLD GONE WRONG is also by them & goes against cultural policy. “strange things are happening like never before” strange things alright-strange things like courage becoming befuddled & nonfundamental.

world gone wrong

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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