Monday, 18 September 2006

Tradition and creativity: Is Bob Dylan a plagiarist?

As Richard points out, some people have suggested that Bob Dylan plagiarises material on his new album, Modern Times.

Dylan’s last two albums, “Love and Theft” (2001) and Modern Times (2006), have been characterised by extensive quotations from various blues and folk traditions. It’s clear that Dylan has been doing this very self-consciously, not as a plagiarist but as a master of these traditions – indeed, it’s no accident that even the titles of both these albums are quotes! And although this technique has become more prominent recently, Dylan has always been interested in appropriating and reinvigorating earlier musical traditions (even nursery rhymes!).

The interesting thing, then, is to identify the sources which Dylan draws on, and to examine the creative ways in which he transforms this material and makes it distinctively “Dylanesque.” A valuable resource is this superb website, which provides annotated lyrics to Dylan’s albums – the annotations point out numerous quotations from old folk, blues and gospel songs.

Anyway, one wonders whether people who make allegations about Dylan and “plagiarism” have understood anything at all about the nature of artistic creativity. Perhaps they think that artistic creativity is a creation ex nihilo? On the contrary, creative geniuses are those who absorb and master their traditions, and then move those traditions forwards in surprising new ways. Just think of a composer like Mozart, a painter like Picasso, a poet like Milton, a theologian like Barth.

Suggestions that Bob Dylan is a plagiarist, then, are simply ridiculous – just as it would be ridiculous to accuse Milton of plagiarising Homer and the Bible, or Mozart of plagiarising Haydn and J. C. Bach, or Barth of plagiarising Calvin and Schleiermacher.

People (including theologians!) who want to create something new without first immersing themselves in tradition will generally find that they have only “created” something trite and banal. Creative geniuses, on the other hand, not only absorb their traditions but also commandeer them, so that tradition itself now moves forwards with new power and vitality.

23 Comments:

churchpundit said...

I remember when Chris Martin of Coldplay was being interviewed (I can't remember the source at this time). The interviewer suggested that they were copying Radiohead. Chris' response was to deny that they were copying Radiohead, but to admit that they were influenced by them. I thought that was an intelligent response. Radiohead has repeatedly won the prize for most original and influential band. It only makes sense that Coldplay would emerge out of a milieu that holds Radiohead influences. What rock musician would deny being influenced by Elvis? What classical composer would deny being influenced by Mozart? I agree that Dylan, thoroughly immersed in his genre, is pushing the envelope's edges further with his minimalistic music and profound poetry. Unless you can find exact sentences and long phrases of music that are precisely from someone else's material, it isn't plagiarism. churchpundit!

Michael said...

I agree with your analysis, Ben, although the first couple of times I listened to the album my impression was that two songs in particular seemed very alike to other tracks. Rollin' & Tumblin' shares name and feel with the same-titled-track on Clapton's Unplugged album, while Someday Baby is very like Trouble No More on the Jimmy Rogers tribute album Blues Blues Blues (I think it's this song, though it could be one of the others on the album). I wonder whether your argument would have helped George Harrison in the My Sweet Lord lawsuit?

kim fabricius said...

I too agree with this analysis. In fact, I'd go so far as to say -with only slight hyperbole - that there is no such thing as an original thought; original thoughts are simply recycled thoughts (which were recycled thoughts . . . ) which we have either forgotten or of which we are oblivious. And didn't T. S. Eliot say something like the most creative geniuses are also the greatest thieves?

john said...

At any rate, it's good publicity for Henry Timrod.

For those who are interested:

Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines From Henry Timrod?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/14/arts/music/14dyla.html

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/09/14/arts/14dyla_CA1.ready.html

Pax,
John

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Of course, Barth could footnote his sources. That's harder to do in poetry (Milton) and almost impossible to do in song lyrics. However, in this age of extreme litigation, songwriters and composers might want to protect themselves by giving credit on CD jacket covers.

Jean Cauvin said...

So, Dylan can't sing ,and he's a plagarist. I admire the creative artistry of your special pleading on behalf of the caterwaling copycat.

Maximus said...

"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--"The Sacred Wood"

Anonymous said...

Rollin' and Tumblin' was not invented by Clapton- it is an old standard and in public use. Dylan just does his variation.

Molly said...

I recently read a book about classical education called "The Well-trained Mind." The authors (Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise) posited that young children should not and cannot simply be turned loose to "be creative" because they must first learn the building blocks of knowledge that allow them to be creative. (For instance, how to mix colors rather than having a watercolor painting turn brown.) I think that truly creative people, such as Bob Dylan, work on a similar system. Someone in that NY Times article about Henry Timrod said something along the lines of "You could give Timrod's poems to ten other people and none of them could write a song like Bob Dylan."

To Jean Cauvin: Dylan sings well to those who hear well. (Just kidding . . . sort of. :) )

Jean Cauvin said...

Molly,

So it's me that's tone deaf?

(JC, Geneva)

byron said...

Every artist is a cannibal
Every poet is a thief*
All kill their inspiration
And sing about their grief
- Bono, the FLY

*stealing from Eliot at this point!

Molly said...

Jean Cauvin,
I myself can't sing a note . . . but I'm pretty sure I'm not tone deaf. I admit that Dylan's voice is an acquired taste most people have no desire to acquire. To each his own!

John Mark said...

Dorothy Sayers mentions T. S. Elliot (perhaps including the quote mentioned above) in The Mind of the Maker, and decries the "demand" for originality. The line between plagarism and influence may be very fine, but I am thinking of paintings I have 'seen' in books where the artist deliberately copies another work. It is apparently part of the learning process, as has been pointed out here.
Frankly, I would rather do something derivative of high quality than something original that is poor. I have a lot of experience with the latter, unfortunately :).

Alfred Valstar said...

Many a poet hasn't got the best voice, tone or whatever, but it won't hinder their work to touch me.
I think Dylan is just using a certain 'collage' technique, a thing which many poets use. Think of the music Charles Ives, with its many echoes from his youth or just from history. And finally, didn't Johann Sebastian Bach rewrite/recreate many Vivaldi concertos? He copied them by his own hand and still no-one calls him a copycat. For all the artist mentioned in this comment I have a deep respect. Il faut m'excuser, monsieur Cauvin.

dooziew0 said...

I'm really sorry I missed out on this discussion. I'm surprised to find so many comments which ignore the basic problem, which is that Dylan claims these songs as his own, as if they are completely new creations. I really don't see how you can justify some of these songs such as "Someday Baby," "The Levee's Gonna Break" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" as original in any way. Muddy Waters was alive as recently as 1983. I think Dylan owes him a little more respect than that.

James said...

Ben: the link to all the annotations to the Dylan lyrics now takes you to an obscure Polish website. Can you remember the name of the site or should we just be brushing up on our Polish?! Thanks!

Ben Myers said...

Hi James. Oh, I'm sorry to see that the website is no longer active -- it was a terrific resource. I can't find it anywhere else on the web -- it was written by someone named "Artur J.", and I think it was just entitled "Annotated Lyrics of Bob Dylan".

Anyway, if you ever happen to find it, please let me know!

The Bob Dylan James Damiano Story said...

Bob Dylan Sued Over Dignity For Plagiarism

Camden NJ June 2, 2009 -Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and
lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan's name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan.

It is judicially uncontested by Bob Dylan and or Bob Dylan's law firms Manatt, Phelps & Phillips , Parcher Hayes & Snyder, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Heck Brown and Sherry and Sony House Counsel that Bob Dylan and people in Bob Dylan's entourage have solicited James Damiano's songs and music for over ten years and eleven months, as per the law suit.

District Judge Jerome B. Simandle states in his decision "This court will accept as true Plaintiff's allegations that Sony represented to him that he would be credited and compensated for his work if Dylan used it. Judge Simandle also stated in his decision "Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had access to his work.

http://www.jamesdamiano.com/

Richard Frankel

uslawjournal@gmail.com

Ben Myers said...

Hi James. Oh, I'm sorry to see that the website is no longer active -- it was a terrific resource. I can't find it anywhere else on the web -- it was written by someone named "Artur J.", and I think it was just entitled "Annotated Lyrics of Bob Dylan".

Anyway, if you ever happen to find it, please let me know!

The Bob Dylan James Damiano St said...

Bob Dylan Sued Over Dignity For Plagiarism

Camden NJ June 2, 2009 -Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and
lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan's name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan.

It is judicially uncontested by Bob Dylan and or Bob Dylan's law firms Manatt, Phelps & Phillips , Parcher Hayes & Snyder, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Heck Brown and Sherry and Sony House Counsel that Bob Dylan and people in Bob Dylan's entourage have solicited James Damiano's songs and music for over ten years and eleven months, as per the law suit.

District Judge Jerome B. Simandle states in his decision "This court will accept as true Plaintiff's allegations that Sony represented to him that he would be credited and compensated for his work if Dylan used it. Judge Simandle also stated in his decision "Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had access to his work.

http://www.jamesdamiano.com/

Richard Frankel

uslawjournal@gmail.com

James said...

Ben: the link to all the annotations to the Dylan lyrics now takes you to an obscure Polish website. Can you remember the name of the site or should we just be brushing up on our Polish?! Thanks!

john said...

At any rate, it's good publicity for Henry Timrod.

For those who are interested:

Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines From Henry Timrod?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/14/arts/music/14dyla.html

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/09/14/arts/14dyla_CA1.ready.html

Pax,
John

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Of course, Barth could footnote his sources. That's harder to do in poetry (Milton) and almost impossible to do in song lyrics. However, in this age of extreme litigation, songwriters and composers might want to protect themselves by giving credit on CD jacket covers.

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