If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them: Bob Dylan, Plagiarism, Freshman Composition, and the “Cult of Originality”

21 May

They’re Planting Stories in the Press

After spending many years among the has-beens, a once renowned performer releases a series of well-received albums. Before long, amid the new rave reviews, reports surface that some lines from these new albums have been stolen from an obscure nineteenth century poet, a Japanese gangster novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, old films, and a number of blues songs. Talk of plagiarism emerges. The guy may have written some strikingly original songs back in the day, people say, but now, clearly, the well has run dry. Sadly, he must rely on the work of others to produce much of anything.

Yet to others, this is no surprise.

What about his first famous song, the one school children the world-over sing? As Greil Marcus points out, that melody is straight from the old spiritual, “No More Auction Block.” His second most famous song from two years later took chords from “La Bamba” and stole its title from Muddy Waters. Though in many respects that particular song was never new, in some strange way, it was newer than most—so much so that it changed the popular music world irrevocably. Marcus quotes Al Kooper who said it was like when “talkies” replaced silent films–it “put a lot of people out of work.”

Whether you are talking about the artist’s new “controversial” songs or the old “groundbreaking” songs, none is original if you go by common definitions. Yet in some miraculous, inexplicable way, they are.

God Knows When, but You’re Doin’ It Again

Even before the release Bob Dylan’s latest album, Together Through Life, there were rumors all over town. Some say the early download, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” sounds like “Black Magic Woman.” Those of a somewhat earlier vintage might think of “Who’s Been Talkin’.” Scott Warmuth’s excellent detective work has found that the album title, Together Through Life, is lifted both from Walt Whitman and from James Joyce’s letters to his wife. The Bruce Davidson cover photo was a cover photo before––on Larry Brown’s book, Big, Bad Love. Several lines in the songs (co-written this time with partner in crime, Robert Hunter) come from The Canterbury Tales, others from Ovid’s The Erotic Poems. Despite all the uproar over stolen lines from Confederate poet Henry Timrod and Japanese novelist Junichi Saga in his two previous albums, apparently, Bob Dylan is up to his old tricks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Depending upon your perspective, either Dylan is an artist the likes of which the world has rarely seen, or he’s a musical pickpocket.

Maybe you can’t have one without the other.

As a listener and a blues-educated musician, I am familiar with the folk/blues worlds and how most new works borrow extensively from what came before. Not only am I not troubled by such appropriations––I consider them indispensable. Yet, worlds collide: I also teach freshman English. In that setting, undocumented appropriation is the third rail. It’s a capital crime. What’s a poor composition teacher-slash-musician to do?

Something Is Happening Here,

But You Don’t Know What It Is

Perhaps I should make a distinction: I am at ease with appropriation as long as it is used to create rather than duplicate. I’m not alone. If members of the blues/folk/jazz cultures hear something familiar, they might say, “I like what you did with that.” When something “new” turns up, these people already know its genealogy to the letter. (The documentation is “embedded,” you might say.) When you are just copying (i.e. the Elvis version of “Hound Dog”), rightful owners deserve acknowledgement and proper compensation (which they often didn’t get back then). But that’s not what this is about. This is about what the act of creating involves. When you are borrowing to create, you are granted greater freedom (or should be), and for good reason.

Few will have an awareness of this other open-source world musicians know so well. As a consequence, outsiders, like overwhelmed comp teachers who have been burned too many times, feel violated. Yet, if at some point those folks decide to get more involved, they’ll learn soon enough. Eventually, such listeners will find their way back to some earlier (though maybe not “original”) sources just as I did, largely because Dylan’s songs pointed me in that direction. As legal expert Lawrence Lessig says, “You pay respect to tradition by incorporating it. But you make the tradition compelling by doing so in a way that makes everyone want to understand more.” In just two lines, Lessig captures the essence of Dylan’s career.

The academic world does things differently. If I were to refer to the “uses of chaos” here or to comment on Dylan’s use of “dialogism,” people familiar with English composition studies would know I’m referring to Ann Berthoff and Mikhail Bakhtin. (Duh, as the kids say.) Even though, like with the blues singers, these references are already deeply embedded in my peers’ neural pathways, I need to document them anyway. In academia, that’s the only way you’ll ever be heard. There are gatekeepers in place to uphold certain quality-control standards. Nothing wrong with that. Giving credit where credit is due matters. How to do that, however, changes depending on the context. In traditional music, whatever gates do exist tend to swing freely like those John Wayne movie barroom doors. Though it may not look like it, Dylan is following conventions and accepted practices. Where he works, borrowing is just how it’s done. Credit is assumed based upon a vast reservoir that is held in common. Put up a bigger gate and you don’t get a Louis Armstrong, or a Memphis Minnie, and Bob Dylan would be forever young Bobby Zimmerman.

You’re Very Well Read, It’s Well Known

Music, literature, it’s all the same to Dylan. In an Oral Tradition article, Richard F. Thomas describes how Dylan digs deep, going back even farther than The Canterbury Tales, using Ovid and Virgil in “Love and Theft” and Modern Times. Thomas speaks eloquently of what it does to a listener who unexpectedly hears other voices in Dylan’s songs:

But even on the first time through “Love and Theft,” even before we had noted the quotes around the title that drew attention to the theft of Eric Lott’s title, before we had been handed the snippets of Confessions of a Yakuza, transformed into Appalachian and other vignettes, there was Virgil, loud and clear, in the tenth verse of “Lonesome Day Blues” (itself a Blind Willie McTell title):

I’m gonna spare the defeated, I’m gonna speak to the crowd / I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys/ I’m going to speak to the crowd/ I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered / I’m gonna tame the proud // (“Lonesome  Day Blues”)

But yours will be the rulership of nations, / remember, Roman, these will be your arts: / to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, / to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud //(Virgil, Aeneid 6.851-53, [trans.Mandelbaum])

Such insertions, known as “intertexts,” are not gap-fillers for a burnt-out, writer’s-blocked songwriter. They are placed there precisely to create something new.

Poems that are layered with intertexts reveal depths of meaning through our recognition of those texts as we import other contexts that work together with new images, metaphors, and other poetic or musical effects. That is true of Virgil, Dante, Milton, and as we saw, it was true of “Lonesome Day Blues” and much else on Love and Theft.

Thomas, the classicist, hears Virgil where others hear just Dylan. Someone schooled in the blues/folk tradition can no longer just hear the singer or the guitar player when listening to a song because for those people, the song is an echo chamber of familiar melodic and lyrical voices. Like Thomas listening to Dylan, Lessig, too, hears voices when he reads law briefs:

A great brief seems to say nothing on its own. Everything is drawn from cases that went before, presented as if the argument now presented is in fact nothing new. Here again, the words of others are used to make a point the others didn’t directly make. The old cases are remixed. The remix is meant to do something new.

The phrase used to make a point the others didn’t directly make is key. This is something mere copying could never hope to do. These recent works of Dylan’s, says Robert Polito, like all of his works, are “Modernist collages,” much like Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Waste Land which are filled with allusions and lifted lines but which stand on their own, to say the least. In the company of such master thieves, Dylan, too, uses lines familiar to some and places them in new contexts. “Timrod,” says Polito, “works as a citation we’re ultimately intended to notice, though no song depends on that notice.” In short, these are not like photocopies or essay mill purchases from cheathouse.com. They function within the new works independently of their original contexts.

Like traditional music, literature is littered with lifted lines.  Jonathan Lethem recounts the thefts of Nabokov, Pound, Eliot, and Shakespeare. Paul Collins cites thefts by Poe, Melville, and also mentions how “Lawrence Sterne’s immortal diatribe against plagiarism in Tristan Shandy was itself  . . . plagiarized from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.” In addition, Collins reports that the introduction of Google Books to the search engine world has exposed some previously hidden thefts that could be “the first rumble of what may become a literary earthquake.” Though it sometimes has pretended to be somehow separate, the literary process is proving to have been another version of the folk process all along. Here’s how T. S. Eliot put it: “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.”

Virgil was also accused of plagiarism, says Thomas, and his answer to his critics was a defiant, I’d like to see you do that! :

Why don’t they try the same thefts? They’ll find out it’s easier to snatch Hercules’ club from him than a single line from Homer.

As Thomas shows, for Dylan to seamlessly weave together lines from Virgil, an allusion from translator Mandelbaum’s introduction, phrases from a Japanese gangster novel and Huck Finn, and then put them into a song that uses a Blind Willie McTell title shows not only that he has a lot of nerve, but also exhibits Herculean skill.

Coming up —

Part II, plagiarizing about plagiarism, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters chime in, some good fishing spots, Andy Warhol, misplaced fossils, old is the new new, architecture, law school, “I just sorta recorded it” . . .

Part III, college dropouts, the death of the term paper, lawyers, pirates, and black marketeers, Cafe Wha?, love not theft, hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song

Postscript: a tour of the cotton field, a rundown of sources, plus intertexts, and other voices.

Related posts here.


10 Responses to “If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them: Bob Dylan, Plagiarism, Freshman Composition, and the “Cult of Originality””

  1. Deloney April 24, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    And so Mr. Jones, having been slapped around by Mr. Dylan, comes back panting, tail wagging.

  2. Griffin April 24, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    Excellent start! Look forward to your destination and byways out of your window.

  3. Sergio Zurita April 25, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    Writings like this are always welcome.

  4. Hyoomik April 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    But most of all, he has stolen most of his words from the dictionary

    • ohmercy July 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

      a little late- but this was a great comment!

  5. huck July 29, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    Good piece of writing.

    In the case of Leonard Cohen compared to Bob Dylan.
    Cohen steals but rewrites and rewrites till it is his own.
    Dylan doesn t seem to have that type of patience.
    He is more of an expressoinist at heart and so at time
    it becomes to obvious where his scources are.

  6. betty ann samson July 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Thanks for this fine article.

    When I studied poetry many years ago in college, the anthology textbooks included footnotes to help the student with references to earlier literature. The footnotes were placed by the editor, not the poet.
    The poet assumes the reader’s knowledge goes beyond the one poem being read.


  1. Mary Travers « Imaginary Boundaries - September 17, 2009

    […] same/We just saw it from a different point of view.” In keeping with the issues raised in Master Thief, I must confess that some of the inspiration comes from John Updike’s “A & P” […]

  2. RightWingBob.com » Poachery in motion: the continuing story - April 27, 2010

    […] Dylan layers references in his songs, and how this all can play out in the mind of the listener: If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them: Bob Dylan, Plagiarism, Freshman Composition, and th…. ……………….Share […]

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