“Whenever Bob Dylan is asked how you become a great songwriter, he has always said that you go back to the basics of traditional roots music … Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and on and on.” – Bruce Hornsby.
“I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”- Bob Dylan, 1996.
A comedian once used an entire song lyric of mine in her stand-up routine, without permission and without crediting me. She doesn’t use it anymore but writes her own, very good material. There was certainly no money involved but it was still a source of great hurt, anger and frustration. I feel genuinely sympathetic to those on the receiving end of musical theft and plagiarism.
In the 1st century, the use of the Latin word plagiarius (literally kidnapper), to denote an individual stealing someone else’s work, was pioneered by Roman poet Martial, who complained that another poet had “kidnapped his verses.”
This use of the word plagiary was introduced into English in 1601 by dramatist Ben Jonson, to describe someone guilty of literary theft.
In broad terms, it is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
I just pinched most of that from Encyclopedia Brittanica, The Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia.
The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral (with originality as an ideal) only became popular in Europe in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement. In the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention”.
The new fashion for instant ‘pop stars’ who possess an X factor seems to be reverting to a pre-Romantic, pre-Invention sensibility. If I hear one more technically competent but emotionally vapid rendition of ‘To Make You Feel My Love’, I think I will throw my TV out of the window. That wouldn’t be original either.
Anyway, song composition that follows the rules of a musical scale is limited. There are only a small number of notes. The seven-note diatonic scale is the foundation of the European musical tradition.There are only so many roads a man can walk down without bumping into somebody else.
I once wrote a beautiful love ballad, only to realise it was the theme tune to a 1970’s children’s TV show, The Wombles, but slowed right down. Not only was that embarrassing, it showed me how easy it is to be creatively influenced without consciously knowing it. I certainly didn’t set out to steal the tune! It was in my brain from childhood.
Algorithms (or musical rules) have been used to compose music for centuries and there have (and always will be) similarities, subconscious copying and appropriations. Modern, Western, popular music is pretty simple and the framework is limited. You could analyse every song that is based on G D C, for example, and find a thousand lyrical, topical or stylistic similarities.
In American and European folk music, it’s been a long-standing tradition to ‘cut and paste’ from the songs of preceding generations. It’s not only encouraged, but expected.
Bob Dylan is no exception. From the start of his musical life, he quickly proved his mastery at the form, borrowing not only from his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, (or Hank Snow, Ramblin Jack Elliott or Dave Von Ronk) but from old folk songs and American blues in the public domain.
“The Ballad of Hollis Brown” owes its melody to the 1920s ballad, “Pretty Polly,” while the recorded arrangement for “Masters of War” was taken from Jean Ritchie’s “Nottamun Town,” an English folk song whose roots date back to the middle ages.
Every musician at the time knew that was the case. There was no need to credit anyone formally – it was accepted and conventional. Dylan wasn’t hiding anything – he was open about it. He took old melodies and tunes and created something new, and quite brilliant, within a musical framework.
A music lawyer friend, in response to my questions about lyrical plagiarism said:
“You are really asking about copyright – how much of a lyric can you use before you might get sued by the writer or publisher? The answer is: there is no exact amount. It is absolutely permissible to use small portions of someone else’s text in a song without crediting the original author. It might be good manners to do so, but it is not a legal requirement. You can’t appropriate the whole thing 100% though – that breaks copyright law.”
Madonna, Avril Lavigne, Led Zeppelin, Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, George Harrison, John Lennon, Oasis, ZZ Top, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Beach Boys – all these artists (and more) have been successfully sued for plagiarism. Bob Dylan hasn’t.
The list of Dylan-inspired artists is long and well-known. A few are merely copyists but most are great artists in their own right:
The Beatles, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, World Party, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Marc Bolan, The Waterboys, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, The Psychedelic Furs, (did anyone sound more like Blonde On Blonde era Dylan than Richard Butler?), John Lennon, Chrissie Hynde, Donovan, Steve Harley, Bruce Springsteen (his early albums are blatant Dylan), Sheryl Crow…Ed Sheeran, Damien Rice, Jack White or Mumford & Sons owe a lot to Dylan, just as Dylan owes a lot to others. It’s a two-way street.
Had Brian Eno never heard of Erik Satie or Philip Glass before doing his ‘ambient’ albums? I don’t think so.
Keith Richards learned to play like Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, all copied and developed the American ‘Blues’.
Ryan Adams was influenced by Gram Parsons who was inspired by Merle Haggard who took a lot from Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie who copied elements from Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. How far does the line go back? Sea Shanties, Medieval Minstrels. A fucking long way.
Mick Jagger once said: “Never wear a new pair of shoes in front of David Bowie”, as Bowie had a reputation as a bit of a magpie. Bowie ‘applied’ William Burroughs ‘cut up’ writing technique to his songs. TS Eliot also used it for some of his poems. The technique originally occurred during a Dadaist rally in the 1920s, when Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. A bit like freestyle rappers.
Yet it is Bob Dylan who seems to get more criticism and attention than any of these other artists, despite being so prolific and innovative:
“I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.
Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.…you know what I say to that horseshit? I say these idiots don’t know what they’re talking about. Go find somebody else to pick on.”
“No-one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me”
Bob Dylan, I imagine, writes songs in the same way he always has – by consciously and/or unconsciously looking to the past to create something new. All artistic expression is informed by the past.
As Jim Jarmusch has said:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery–celebrate it if you feel like it.
In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from–it’s where you take them to.”
Lifting a few lines, rhymes or tunes from poems, folk songs, old country or blues records, books or even film and TV, is not being a thief or trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as your own – it is a natural and historically correct way of writing. You can’t credit each source of influence on a record – it’s not a University degree or a literary tome – it’s ‘Rock n Roll’, it’s popular music, it’s not science.
I think Dylan has been very open about his influences and sources from his very first recordings ( ‘Song For Woody’ on his first LP?). He has given far, far more than he has ever taken.
In 2004, Robert Hilburn asked where Subterranean Homesick Blues came from:
“Without pause, Dylan says, almost with a wink, that the inspiration dates to his teens. “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the ’40s.
In the same interview he said:
“Well you have to understand that I’m not a melodist. My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations
of the blues form. What happens is, I’ll take a song and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate”.
“I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s
the folk music tradition – you use what has been handed down.
‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ is probably from an old Scottish folk Song.”….”I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for
instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking
to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start
writing a song.”
He has acknowledged, promoted and influenced many people, and to call him a plagiarist is a nonsense:
“Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me.
And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla…
It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”
Bob Dylan’s body of work is remarkable. It includes an inspiring variety of styles and genres, from ‘folk’ and ‘blues’ through to ‘country’, ‘rock’, ‘swing’ and ‘gospel’. Much of it defies such generalizations. What style or genre would contain Visions Of Johanna? Every Grain Of Sand? Three Angels?
His craft has developed through listening, borrowing, adapting and experimenting and that is as it should be, as it always has been and always will be.
Bob Dylan owes nothing. He has paid his dues and he has inspired countless others, myself included.
My life has been greatly enriched by his work and I’m glad I’ve been able to witness his extraordinary musical journey and to see him play live.
In 2003, Rory Gallagher’s brother, Donal, had this to say – and I think it says it all:
“[Bob] Dylan paid Rory a great compliment. I remember he contacted the office around 1993, looking to get a copy of `Live in Europe’ because he liked the track “I Could’ve Had Religion” – it was for the acoustic album he was doing, `Good As I’ve Been To You’. So I sent him a CD copy, and I also sent him `Fresh Evidence’ and said “That’s what Rory was doing back in ’73, here’s what he’s doing now.”
In 1994, Rory and Dylan were sharing a bill in the Montreux Jazz Festival. I asked Dylan why he didn’t use the track. He said “The album was all traditional. When I got the CD of Rory’s, I wondered where he got the other four verses – other than the one original that all the blues guys knew. I worked it out that Rory wrote them himself. It would have been very unfair of me to take that song, do it as a traditional and call it a Bob Dylan traditional. I couldn’t live with that.”
Rory said “Well, you should have done it!”
So Dylan said “Maybe we’ll record it together at some point.”
Sadly, a year later, Rory died.”
“Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumors covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.”
Lyrics from ‘Restless Farewell’ , ‘Up To Me’, ‘Idiot Wind’ by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1964, 1966, 1975 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1994 by Special Rider Music.
Jim Jarmusch quote from ‘Moviemaker’.
Rolling Stone, 2012.
Donal Gallagher interview, 2003, The Fuze – http://www.rory-gallagher-tributepage.de/rory3/interview_donal_gallagher.htm
This article is Copyright © 2013 William Henry Prince and you can’t use it without seeking and gaining my express permission. Or at least giving me credit and pasting a link to my site!