We need to talk about Bob Dylan.
Not so much about his Nobel Prize for literature itself because, as a few folk have said, the truths of the poet have been considered literature for millennia. Yet while Bob is not Ovid, admittedly, he does “borrow” from him unadmittedly – as Nelson poet Cliff Fell discovered a few years ago while listening to the Dylan album Modern Times while reading Ovid’s 2000-year-old book of poetry, Tristia.. "It was like I was suddenly reading with my ears," Fell wrote, citing almost identical lines heard in Dylan's "Workingman's Blues No. 2.”
For example, Fell compared Dylan's line "no one can ever claim that I took up arms against you" from ‘Workingman's Blues’ with Ovid's "My cause is better: no one can claim that I ever took up arms against you."
But to Fell, it didn't seem to matter. "This is homage, not plagiarism," he wrote…
Fell found four other “borrowings” from the same book, which takes the “homage” from possibly accidental to wholly intentional – and entirely unacknowledged. Others have found many more borrowings from the same book, which in my mind begins to look less like homage and more like that other word that Fell used.
Because when Bob borrows – and, as “they” say (erroneously), all good artists do – he never gives credit. This first bothered me when I heard him play on his Time Out of Mind album a note-for-note version of Muddy Waters’s Rollin’ & Tumblin’ – a blues classic for decades that, when recorded (by Cream or by Clapton, by Jeff Beck or by Canned Heat) always appeared with a writing credit to McKinley Morganfield (Waters’s real name).* Not so with Bob, despite the obvious larceny.
For his part, Waters himself (from whom the Rolling Stones got their name and Dylan another song title) always fully acknowledged that the song and its distinctive riff were inspired by a traditional blues first recorded (it seems) by a fellow with the name of Hambone Willie Newbern. Not so Dylan. Not then and not ever. The album on which this and those other borrowings above appeared both featured the telling words: Words and Music by Bob Dylan. All of them. When challenged, Dylan evaded. And enforced “his” copyrights in court.
And this isn’t even the only song by Muddy Waters that’s reconstituted as something with ‘Words and Music by Bob Dylan’ on the package. ‘Trouble No More’ becomes ‘Someday Baby.’ And ‘Mannish Boy,’ (itself a redo of Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m a Man) donates the riff to ‘Early Roman Kings.’ Without attribution yet again.
If none of this makes you uneasy, it does me. "Steal a little and they throw you in jail,” said Bob (or someone) in "Sweatheart Like You”. “Steal a lot and they make you king." And so it seems. Even before the Nobel, Dylan won a Grammy for Modern Times. Because as several writers have been examining,
A close examination of some of Dylan's studio output in recent years and some of his most famous older tunes makes it hard to deny that he borrows heavily from others work and does not credit them. The topic has been covered extensively in the press over the last decade with publications ranging from the ‘New York Times’ to the ‘Wall Street Journal’ debating Dylan's legacy. Apparently, it's a thin line between being dismissed as a culture vulture and hailed as a master synthesiser in the tradition of folk and blues greats and being Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
So to be blunt, as Jeoff Davis is in a recent article at Creative Loafing, the question must surely be asked: “could the 2016 Nobel Prize winner in Literature actually be a rip-off artist?”
Davis and others cite several songs which appear to be borrowed heavily from the classics Dylan himself loves and admires – not just recent songs, but classics like ‘Blowin; in the Wind,’ ‘Hard Rain,’ ‘Masters of War,’ ‘One More Cup of Coffee,’ ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ …
It seems as if Dylan has been borrowing other people's work since he started writing. In fact, In 2009, fine art auction house Christie's admitted that a handwritten poem credited to a teenaged Robert Zimmerman that was intended for auction was actually the song lyrics to "Little Buddy" by country singer Hank Snow. After a reader notified Reuters news of the similarities between the piece and the Snow song, Reuters informed the auction house. According to the article, a 16-year-old Zimmerman originally submitted the "poem" to his summer camp's newspaper with his name signed at the bottom minus any mention of Snow.
And it's not just Dylan's lyrics that have been called into question, his memoir ‘Chronicles: Volume 1’ which was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Critics Award has been cited by Dylanologists as being heavily plagiarised, including seemingly authentic moments from Dylan's life, were lifted from a wide variety of sources ranging from classic literature, to random issues of ‘Time’ magazine, to self help books. And The New York Times chronicled similarities between Dylan's paintings which were shown in an exhibit called "The Asia Series," which supposedly documented his travels but as the Times article shows in image comparisons, his paintings are strikingly similar to other people's photographs. "I paint mostly from real life," Dylan is quoted as saying by ‘The Times’ from the catalogue from the exhibit.
Yeah, that and other people's photographs.
And what does Mr. Dylan, the spokesman for a generation, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature have to say about all this.
"Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff…. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me."
Nice redirection there Mr Dylan. But it doesn’t answer the question, does it.
Sure, he now has a cracking band to play these re-composed tunes, so they do sound tremendous (especially when they successfully bury Bob’s own mixed musicianship in the mix) but that doesn’t make all the recomposition right. Not without credit.
“Why does Bob Dylan steal?", asks David Galenson at Huffington Post? Answer: Who knows. Famous magpie Jen Luc Godard “dismissed the problem: ‘we have the right to quote as we please.’ But why do they please to quote so much? And why do they quote so many obscure sources?”
Nice rhetorical question there, Mr Galenson.
[Some] people [do] object to this [thank goodness]. Scott Warmuth called him “Bob Charlatan.” Joni Mitchell called him a plagiarist: “Everything about Bob is a deception.” Michael Gray found Dylan’s paintings unimaginative: “It may not be plagiarism but it’s surely copying rather a lot.”
Others don’t mind Dylan’s appropriations. Suzanne Vega explained that “it’s modern to use history as a kind of closet in which we can rummage around, pull influences from other eras.”
More accurate to say post-modern. And that’s not intended to be complimentary. And while some may excuse it by observing “that we’ve just come through some two and a half decades of hip-hop sampling,” as Galenson responds, “my dictionary’s definition of ‘borrow’ includes repayment. How exactly is Dylan repaying his debts?” Especially if attribution is denied.
So, Love or Theft?
For anyone interested, I put together a Spotify playlist of the most obvious borrowings folk have mentioned so you can hear just what he’s done to all those songs, Ma. (The borrowing generally follows the borrowed from).
I’d be curious to know what you think.
PS: Just discovered another Spotify list of Bob’s “Borrowings & Appropriations,” with scarcely an overlap with mine:
* It’s not just good manners. I was introduced to dozens of great musos I came to love simply by reading the song credits on the likes of George Thorogood or Dr Feelgood records, just as another generation did the same by reading them off Cream albums or the first by the Rolling Stones. I”d be .