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.

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