”I believe these things are true about Dylan, as they are true about any genius:
- He is unstoppable.
- “He” is both an individual and a medium, a process by which certain energies are released, and the “he”—the man, Bob Dylan—arranges and invents and occasionally exploits the forms in which these energies are released.
- As fast as people imagine they are following his “career,” he is always ahead of them and therefore no longer interested in their opinions; not out of modesty, but because he has work to do.
- If there had been no era of protest, no civil-rights involvement, no Vietnam War—still, there would be a Bob Dylan, because the energy he represents would have been channeled into another area.”
(Joyce Carol Oates, 1972, Letter to the Editor, Esquire)
“Finally! We got him! Hihaaa! He, or someone close to him, has used Google! The synopsis of Melville´s ”Moby Dick” is partly copied from ”Spark Notes”! Not the most important part of the lecture?? That´s not the point at all! We got him! At last! And – that proves….”
Yes – what does it really prove? Really?
Although there is almost no artist I admire more than Bob Dylan, I don´t think he is the most accurate when it comes to stating or acknowledging his sources. I still to this day think he should have given credit to, at least, some of the artists and writers who sang or wrote the songs on his album ”Good As I Been To You” (1992), maybe he could have done it in the same beautiful way he did on the liner notes for the sequel ”World Gone Wrong” (1993). ”I treated them as they were my songs, not like covers”, he said, and that´s true, that´s one of his trademarks, but still, Bob, you should have enlightened us on the origins of these songs, too. For instance – Sam Goslow and Will Grosz wrote “Tomorrow Night”, it wasn´t just a traditional. And yes – even if he made his own version of ”Rollin´And Tumblin´” on ”Modern Times”, he should have mentioned the first known recorded version of the song, I think, it was ”Roll And Tumble Blues”, by Hambone Willie Newbern – even if the Muddy Waters-version was more known. An “adapted from” would be appropriate. I guess he would agree.
On the other side – I find it quite okay that he didn´t yell out: “This is a song written by Dave Bartholomew, first recorded by Smiley Lewis, later by Fats Domino” when he surprisingly sang it in Brixton Academy in 2005, or “Now I´m gonna sing you a beautiful song by Willie Nelson”, when he just as surprisingly slapped the ace onto the table in Mainz in 2015, when he delivered a perfect “Sad Songs And Waltzes”. At stage, Dylan is in total command, he decides if he wants to talk or not. His stage performance is a psychodrama, a soul in motion, and on his own stage he reign supremely. It has to be that way.
Extenuating circumstances? The fact that Dylan always has been very eager to point to his predecessors must be one of them – both in interviews and writing – and as a phenomenal Radio-DJ in his “Theme Time Radio Hour”, presenting both music and poetry from more than a thousand of the artists that inspired and inspires him. The musical tree of life and heritage, when it comes to Dylan, is more rich and diverse than almost any other artist, in any area of art, and it´s a tree that blossoms with arrows to all kinds of artistic expressions, artists, themes, authors, singers, musicians, poetry, religion and genres. There is a whole library of books and articles that brings us the results of the detective work in puzzling the pieces together, making many of us richer in searching, not for the “final truth”, but for connections, roots and heritage, new songs and new artists. If one were to make the hypertext, references and footnote links from Bob Dylan´s lyrics as they are presented on his homepage, it would have made it all unreadable because of their diversity, layers, alternatives and enormous scope. No songwriter or author are more cited in the court room, he is cited in science reports and articles, in poems and books, many not even knowing that it him they are citing. Bob Dylan is an original, if there ever was one, but he is also a melting pot of tradition and inspiration, of quotations and samples. Without a single footnote.
The complete works of Bob Dylan, including his name, is part of a roadmap for the soul, but it is also an eternal quiz and impossible labyrinth of clues and quotes and hints and twists and turns and words and expressions and inspirations and spurs of the moment, it´s a jambalaya and a rainbow stew, it´s the boiling saucepan and the artist himself is the magical soupstone that makes it all work and taste good. No matter what it means, the tendency to move us is unparalleled in the history of song. One spoon of Vern Gosdin, one of Ernest Tubb, one spoon of Arabian rhythms, three pinches of “Barbara Allen”, a little bit of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a touch of Roud Folk Song Index Number 11318, a little bit of Matthew 9:20, some ivy leaves and silver thorns, a pound of human nature, a slice of wisdom & poetic courage – stir it all good, and then you have a delicious meal for the ages, “Scarlet Town”. Then the question is – should we review the soup or the ingredients? Both are interesting, of course. But the end result all depends on the cook, doesn´t it?
“My old man he´s like some feudal lord”, Dylan sings in “Floater”. In the novel “Confessions of a Yakuza”, translated from Japanese to English, we find the line: “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord”. A great line, of course, but to use it in a song far from the themes of the Japanese novel – accusations of plagiarism? “More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours”, sings Dylan in “When The Deal Goes Down”, clearly inspired by the relatively unknown Henry Timrod, an american 19th century poet and his “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”, which reads: “A round of precious hours, Oh! Here where in that summer noon I basked, And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.” Beautiful expressions in their original version, perfectly marinated into the 21th century song by Dylan. Should this expression be used only once in history, or should it be footnoted every time it is used? Plagiarism – like breaking the law? Like criminal? Or – plain songwriting, picking up and using expressions and meanings that sticks in your mind – “I got to remember that perfect visual expression, maybe I could use it in a song one time?” Isn´t that the way it works, really? In a non-criminal way? Off course combined with strikes of originality, where putting words and expressions together in new and surprising ways always will make us interested, to see more broadly, with new eyes, maybe even with tears in our eyes, if the words and the song move us.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (T. S. Eliot)
Okay, so Dylan is a mature poet, then. As was Shakespeare, building many of his plots on older well known and lesser known plots, making it into something better and different. As was Miguel De Cervantes a mature author, that grabbed much of his plot for “Don Quixote” from earlier writings from unknown authors, and weaved it together to the finest cloth with pieces of ballads and legends and Italian poets from the fifteenth century and sources to many to mention. As was Herman Melville, making one of the world´s most famous novels ever, “Moby Dick”, lifting entire technical sections about whaling from other sources.
The very original Rudyard Kipling admitted that he “stole” from older stories piecing together the story about Mowgli in “The Jungle Book”, and made this little poem about this kind of stealing:
“When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
‘E went an’ took – the same as me!
The market-girls an’ fishermen,
The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
But kep’ it quiet – same as you!
They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
An’ ‘e winked back – the same as us!”
Virgil of course “stole” from Homer, and some even thinks that biblical stories, like the one about David and Goliath, are borrowed from Greek literature, “The Iliad”, and so on. Then again, we are not even sure if Homer lived, but that, if he lived, he was blind. And did he come up with all the good stuff himself or was he only writing it down for the first time?
The term plagiarism isn´t at all a meaningless term. On the contrary. But it´s difficult when it comes to literature and poetry and songwriting. When is it “stealing” in a criminal meaning of the word, and when is it “stealing” in an artistic defensible meaning of the word, as T. S. Eliot argues?
Then, to the Nobel lecture. Dylan´s critics is talking about using Spark Notes on “Moby Dick” as “plagiarism”. By the way, I just wonder, what would they call it if he used exactly Herman Melville´s own words in the lecture, and not just partly quoting the synopsis? It seems obvious that Dylan refreshed his memory of the book with Spark Notes, that he, just as obviously, has read the novel in his younger years (if you don´t believe it, listen to “Bob Dylan´s 115th Dream”). He may even be embarrassed by the Spark Notes connection. Who knows? But was it really important in the setting? He was rushing through three examples of how literature and song are intertwined in exploring the eternal themes of human nature. Like “All Quiet On The Western Front” and “John Brown”, like “The Oddysey” and “Early Roman Kings”, where he openly quotes Homer, or like the mentioned dream and “Moby Dick”. (By the way – I think Dylan may have loved the synopsis since he read Harry Smith´s short description of each song chosen for “Anthology of American Folk Music”. Or maybe longer. That doesn´t mean he didn´t knew the songs by heart.)
In some of the triumphant comments on the net it seems like the whole speech was just grabbed from the internet or Spark Notes, and that it didn´t contain one original thought – like it´s the definitive proof of Dylan being just another copycat, like he´s been accused from “Blowing In The Wind” to this day. To make that fit you can´t really talk about the speech as a whole, his speaking of song, about Buddy Holly, about Leadbelly, about the magic folk vernacular, about the meaning of song, about the songs higher goal – to move you, his speaking of both the similarities and the differences between the literature written to be read and the literature written and performed to be heard, to be listened to. Some people seem to think that the lecture wasn´t a lecture, but an exam. That´s really funny. On the internet (!) it says: “A lecture is an oral presentation intended to present information or teach people about a particular subject.” The particular subject this time was chosen and decided by Bob Dylan himself: “How my (Bob Dylan) songs relate to literature.” And that was what he was speaking of. A lecture only he could hold. He was magically drawn to the singers and the songs, he was trying to find a way to write songs that no one had written before, he was busy creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, partly helped by the folk vernacular mixed with literary inspiration, he thinks songs should be listened to, and move people – “in the land of the living” – maybe citing Psalm 27:13, maybe using an expression he heard in the synagogue as a child or in a Patti LaBelle song – who knows? And what does it really matter?
Yes, I am a thief of thoughts
not, I pray, a stealer of souls
I have built an’ rebuilt
upon what is waitin’
for the sand on the beaches
carves many castles
on what has been opened
before my time
a word, a tune, a story, a line
keys in the wind t’ unlock my mind
an’ t’ grant my closet thoughts backyard air
it is not of me t’ sit an’ ponder
wonderin’ an’ wastin’ time
thinkin’ of thoughts that haven’t been thunk
thinkin’ of dreams that haven’t been dreamt
an’ new ideas that haven’t been wrote
an’ new words t’ fit into rhyme
(if it rhymes, it rhymes
if it don’t, it don’t
if it comes, it comes
if it won’t, it won’t)
no I must react an’ spit fast
with weapons of words
wrapped in tunes
that’ve rolled through the simple years
teasin’ me t’ treat them right
t’ reshape them an’ restring them
t’ protect my own world
from the mouths of all those
who’d eat it
an’ hold it back from eatin’ its own food
for all songs lead back t’ the sea
an’ at one time, there was
no singin’ tongue t’ imitate it)
t’ make new sounds out of old sounds
an’ new words out of old words
an’ not t’ worry about the new rules
for they ain’t been made yet
an’ t’ shout my singin’ mind
knowin’ that it is me an’ my kind
that will make those rules . . .
if the people of tomorrow
really need the rules of today
rally ’round all you prosecutin’ attorneys
the world is but a courtroom
but I now the defendants better ‘n you
and while you’re busy prosecutin’
we’re busy whistlin’
cleanin’ up the courthouse
winkin’ t’ one another
your spot is comin’ up soon”
(From ”11 Outlined Epitaphs”, Bob Dylan, 1964)