If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them (part II)

23 May


(In Part I, instances of plagiarism in Bob Dylan’s most recent works were discussed, plus the common practice of appropriation in the blues, folk, and jazz traditions, along with findings of similar thefts in the literary tradition.)

To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest

Jonathan Lethem’s study of Bob Dylan’s appropriations, “The Ecstasy of Influence” (a play on Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence), includes the subtitle “A Plagiarism.” Turns out, the article is a string of thefts lovingly tied together to show the crucial role of borrowing in creativity. Lawrence Lessig, one of those appropriated heavily in the article, told Washington Post writer Bob Thomson the piece is “beautifully crafted” and it “teaches more about the importance of what I call ‘remix’ than any other work I’ve read.” (Citing Lethem’s piece, however, is a Dylanesque experience, as you will see. Think of any quotes from him here as something more akin to a wink.)

Appropriately, the first section of Lethem’s piece is called Love and Theft (no quotation marks this time), acknowledging that the title comes from Dylan by way of Eric Lott’s “study of minstrelsy” and that Lott’s own use of the title “is a riff on Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel.”  Lethem uses such examples to show that “Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music.” Most importantly, he says, “Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.”

And he doesn’t stop there. “The same might be said of all art,” he claims.

To show how “authorship” works in the folk/blues tradition, Lethem refers to an Alan Lomax interview with Muddy Waters about the song “Country Blues”:

In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he “made it” on a specific date. Then the “passive” explanation: “it come to me just like that.” After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that “this song comes from the cotton field.”

There is no spin, no Clintonesque hair-splitting about the meaning of “is,” no finger wagging I-did-not-steal-lines-from-that-man lectures. Waters is being utterly matter-of-fact. (Yeah, I heard it, Son House taught me, it’s from the cotton field, and I made it. What’s the big deal?) Here, Waters’ “originality and his appropriations are as one.” As Lethem notes, “Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of ‘open source’ culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked.” Expanding on this idea (and echoing the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Ann Berthoff), he adds,

Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.

Dylan seemed to sense this early in his career. In “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” he explains it this way:

I can’t tell you the influences ’cause there’s

too many to mention an’ I might leave one out

An’ that wouldn’t be fair

Woody Guthrie, sure

Big Joe Williams, yeah

It’s easy to remember those names

But what about the faces you can’t find again

What about the curbs an’ corners an’ cut-offs that drop out a sight an’ fall behind

What about the records you hear but one time

What about the coyote’s call an’ the bulldog’s bark

What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo

An’ the train whistle’s moan

Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it

Think of it. The artists confesses. It’s not a grudging admission that he got caught red-handed. It’s like breathing. He’s saying “There’s so many I can’t remember them all,” and “You didn’t look hard enough.”

Businessmen They Drink My Wine

Jazz “is known for its ‘collective improvisation,’” says Lessig, and copyright law “has been fairly relaxed about the creativity of jazz musicians.” Not so in some other disciplines where many are not as “relaxed” as our lawyer friend, sometimes resulting in unfounded lawsuits. Citing many examples of jazz-like appropriations in literature, painting, music, and cartoons, Lethem (I think) says, “If these are examples of plagiarism, we want more plagiarism.” (Actually, I checked–he got that from US Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner.) The products of a culture become a kind of “commons,” Lethem says, freely riffing on Lessig here. Like a national park, this commons is open to all with some reasonable restrictions on use. You can camp there, take some photos, paint a landscape, record some birdcalls, go on a hike, cook over a campfire, or take a guided tour, but you can’t harvest lumber, dig a mine, or set up a hydro plant. (Well, at least until recently.) Jared Diamond calls this kind of overreach “the tragedy of the commons” (a term lifted from Garrett Hardin). This happens, he says, when fishermen use dynamite to catch more fish and thus proceed to destroy the very coral reefs that sustain those fish.

The benefits of the commons to a society are unquantifiable and considered to be of far greater value than whatever humongous profits a smaller group of people could gain from the same source. According to Lethem, the commons extends beyond fish to grazing lands, language, the streets, the sky, and “[a]ny text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses . . . .” Such works have “moved to a place beyond enclosure or control.” In fact, excessive enclosure or control, says Lessig, “will harm the environment of innovation” both for business and art, with results “that will undermine the potential for building something new.”

Don’t Look Back

For an example of an artist who made use of the commons, Lessig points to Andy Warhol:

Warhol created work that appropriated and remixed. Some of that culture was owned, meaning copyrighted or trademarked (think Campbell’s soup cans). Some wasn’t. But whether owned or not, the result was distinctly Warhol. He freely built on work that came before him.

Warhol-style “reuse” isn’t just for artists, writers, and folksingers––it extends even into science and medicine. In one case, Matt Friedman “discovered” a transition fossil for flatfish, which creationists had always claimed couldn’t exist because there would be no advantage to having an asymmetrical skull that had eyes on both sides. Much to the creationists’ dismay, Friedman found the “missing link”––but not in some distant outcropping as you might expect, rather in the long ago misfiled records of previous scholars. Lethem tells a similar story of library scientist Don Swanson who made a discovery about Raynaud’s Syndrome not in the lab, but by reading “across specialties” in the filed away and forgotten works of previous researchers. (Those in the biz know this process as “text-mining.”) As Lessig says, going back to older material is important because “second comers might do a much better job than the originator” with the material or idea. For Lessig, innovation “depends fundamentally upon a rich and diverse public domain.” As a counter-example, Lessig points to Disney: “In Disney’s view, no one—not even artists, not even noncommercially—is free to build on Disney the way Disney built on the Brothers Grimm.” That’s because Disney blew up the reef.

The Pump Don’t Work

‘Cause The Vandals Took the Handles

Lessig makes a pitch for certain “architectures” that encourage access, reuse, and creativity. He asks, “Which architectures encourage experimentation? Which permit the old to protect themselves from the new? Which permit the new the most freedom to question the old?”

Here Lessig seems to channel Paulo Freire’s “The Banking Concept of Education” which raises similar issues for learning. Freire shows that the traditional lecture/exam architecture in education protects the old at the expense of the new. Those who benefit are the ones who already hold the keys. They are the ones who “own” the knowledge and “regulate” how it is used. Freire champions what Lessig would call a different architecture for teaching and learning that encourages full participation, experimentation, access, questioning, and ultimately, innovation.

Lessig uses computer software terminology (Read Only vs. Read and Write) to talk about copyright and creativity. Before the advent of player pianos and phonographs, music culture was RW. All could participate freely. The new technology changed the music world to RO where professionals ran the show. Since it was too difficult and expensive to become a producer of music culture in the analog era, the rest of us mostly just consumed. Just as Lessig claims that in the twentieth century “people were taught to defer to the professional” in music and film, Freire says learners have been taught this same deference, becoming “adaptable, manageable beings.” Sounding quite Freire-like, Lessig adds, “RO culture speaks of professionalism. Its tokens of culture demand a certain respect. They teach, but not by inviting questions.”

As a teacher himself, Lessig knows the products of RO education well:

When students come to law school, most come from an essentially RO education. For four years (or more), they’ve sat in large lecture halls, with a professor at the front essentially reading the same lectures she’s given year after year after year. “Any questions?” usually elicits points of order, not substance. “Do we have to read chapter 5?” “Will the subjunctive be on the exam?”

A law school education, he says, is fundamentally different. The classroom is an “argument,” not a lecture. The “structure demands that [students] create as they participate in the instruction.” In essence, the students write the lecture:

This then is the first difference between RO and RW cultures. One emphasizes learning. The other emphasizes learning through speaking. One preserves its integrity. The other teaches integrity. One emphasizes hierarchy. The other hides the hierarchy.

Freire believes give-and-take is what true learning involves and is what’s necessary to have a dynamic and healthy society. Lessig speaks similarly when talking about law and copyright. RO/Banking Concept culture permits the old to protect itself against the new in the same way excessive copyright laws permit individuals and corporations to benefit at the expense of the common good. On the other hand, Freire’s RW culture, or in his words, “problem-posing” culture, allows the most freedom to question the old, thus unlocking the door to the new. You can do more than listen to the song––you can remake it.

Dylan’s work has always relied on a rich environment and upon rediscovery and recontextualization. He’s not just another humdinger, folk singer––he’s a problem-poser, a Reader-Writer. Like the old blues masters, he’s been guided to the reef and granted a license to fish. He’s not practicing the art of deception. Instead, he’s handing us his heavily marked, dog-eared maps to the reefs, saying, “Here’s a good spot.” And not only did he find the fishing fine, he has since cared for and replenished the reef for the rest of us.

Imagine if the rights to the song “No More Auction Block” were severely restricted. Then there never would have been a song called “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Imagine Dylan had been unable to use the Ritchie Valens chord progression from “La Bamba” or if a certain Muddy Waters title were unavailable for use. Then the song “Like a Rolling Stone” would not exist. Keeping those earlier songs penned up makes the reef into a museum or a zoo. (Please stand behind the ropes, and don’t feed the animals.) Neither of those stolen songs is a plagiarism. They are new fish born of recombined DNA. In fact, here is how the young Dylan described writing “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

I wrote this one . . . . I didn’t actually write it, I just sorta recorded it. It was there already before I came around and I just sorta took a look and I saw and I, I wrote it down. This is one of the songs that I wrote down so I’d remember to sing it to you.

Even his account of the song’s creation came from somewhere––most likely that Lomax/Waters cotton field interview.

Coming up —

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


5 Responses to “If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them (part II)”

  1. Elatia Harris March 10, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    Son, you did it.

    • 4th Time Around March 10, 2010 at 5:54 am #

      Looks like I have some pretty excellent company.

      • Elatia Harris March 10, 2010 at 10:21 am #

        Yup it just got tougher. Good luck!

  2. leonard federico March 15, 2010 at 5:27 am #

    very interesting..I particularly related to the piece on Warhol. He did steal from the Abstract Expressionists of the fifties. I think this was not discussed a lot until very recently. Andy was more of a celebrity than an artisit.

    • if ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any March 15, 2010 at 8:20 am #

      I don’t know Warhol well enough to judge. (Though I am grateful for whatever assistance he provided to the Velvet Underground!) I think Lessig is right about Warhol’s ability to appropriate something and then make it his own (whatever people think of the results). This is much like what Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters did with things like Son House’s “Walking Blues.” Their songs are clearly “lifted,” but they are more than just copies. Such thefts paved the way for work that was more original.

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