From Bob Dylan to Etta James: Philosophy’s greatest (sung) hits

In verses that are almost philosophical capsules, numerous artists have summarized the human condition

Bob Dylan at a concert in Los Angeles in January 2012.
Bob Dylan at a concert in Los Angeles in January 2012.Christopher Polk (Getty Images)

We tend to think of philosophy as a sophisticated academic system that is solely for scholars. But philosophy is something that can be applied to any situation that involves humans, whether alone or with others. The same is true of music. With verses that serve as philosophical nuggets, countless songs meditate on the human condition. The all-time champion—a song that so many hate—is probably Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, which croons: “I close my eyes only for a moment and the moment’s gone/All we are is dust in the wind/Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever.” It offers a sugary lesson in stoicism, the school of philosophy that helps us come to grips with the finality and decadence of the world, all that we love, and ourselves: everything dies and all accomplishments will come to nothing.

In Being and Time, Heidegger ponders our existence, being there, thrown into possibility. If we are made of time—that most indomitable material—then Nina Simone has proved herself to be the most genuinely Heideggerian singer. As she sings in Who Knows Where The Time Goes: “At some point in your life you will have occasion to wonder / What is that thing called time / What does it do / And, above all, is it alive?” Simone—who wrote 500 songs and was a civil rights activist who left the US because of racism—said that freedom meant not being afraid.

But it’s not easy. In I’d Rather Go Blind, the great Etta James sings, “I would rather go blind, boy/ Than to see you walk away from me, child, no / Most of all, I just don’t, I just don’t wanna be free, no.” James is not alone in imagining that abyss. Indeed, one of the keys to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is precisely the problem of freedom, that effort to exercise free will in regard to anything outside moral law—that is, not linked to impulses—and the ability to choose beyond our desires.

Do what you want

Free will is a classic theme with which we must grapple every day of every week in every year we live. A back-and-forth of questioning and doubt leaves us exhausted, at times making us want to throw in the towel. But almost all of us keep going, swept along by a strange force. We have no academic proof, but it is likely that Eddie & The Hot Rods’ song Do Anything You Wanna Do has saved many from despair and liberated many minds. The song explains that you can do what you want to do, that is, what you honestly believe that you should do without meeting the demands imposed by others.

Beyond the struggles to break free from the chains that bind us (whether our own or other people’s), Friedrich Engels warns us that the law of conservation and transformation of energy is the fundamental law of movement, and that this—to use Gottfried Leibniz’s term—vis viva [living force] dominates nature. That is what the African word saoco originally meant: movement. Later, Puerto Rican slang used it to describe something dynamic, rhythmic, and tasty. It is something that moves and changes, as Rosalía sings in Saoko: “When it’s night in the sky and it becomes day / everything’s already changed / I am all things / I transform myself.”

Power and glory are only human, but many people, most of them invisible, ruminate on the concepts. Like Albert Camus’s choice between justice and his mother, they eventually decide to jettison abstract concepts and stay with the finite reality of human warmth instead. In 2019, Rosalía sang “I’ll stay with you [Me quedo contigo] on TV. People loved it. Some remembered it from the 1980s, when the Spanish rumba band Los Chunguitos first released that song, and realized then that they had not paid enough attention to the lyrics that say: “If you force me to choose between you and my ideas / without which I’m a lost man / oh love! I’ll stay with you.”

Directly or indirectly, other songwriters mention the thinkers who have influenced them, such as The Cure in Killing an Arab, which is based on Albert Camus’ The Stranger. In it, they sing: “I’m alive / I’m dead / I’m the stranger.” Another example is Bob Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine: “I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine / alive as you or me / alive with fiery breath.” Some call Dylan the Prophet, but the Minnesota native is not an apparition; he’s a living man, a real person. Now 81 years old, at 32 his song Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door told us that we’re on a path toward death, a fate that makes us thinking beings. Life’s every instant is both a gift and a countdown [to the end]. Perhaps the best thing we can do is blast Latin jazz maestro Mongo Santamaria’s song Quiero saber (I Wanna Know) and start dancing.

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