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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

BOB DYLAN DISGUISED AS HENRY ROLLINS

Henry Rollins, c/o www.streetteaminterviews.com

I've followed with keen interest the indefatigable research by Scott Warmuth and Ed Cook, tracing what 21st Century work by Bob Dylan is, er, not necessarily by Bob Dylan. We've had the archeology of Henry Timrod; we've had the plethora of works by Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and others smuggled into Chronicles Volume One (I commend Warmuth's excellent New Haven Review essay about this). And now most recently there's this discussion of what Dylan might be said to have mined from the prose works of HenryRollins: see Scott Warmuth's blog  -  not least as it affects that tremendous "Love and Theft" song/recording, 'Mississippi'.

But the thing surely is: these lines read better, and sound better, and manage to be so Dylanesque, coming from Dylan. Which is what he's so often achieved when he's reprocessed lines and phrases from old blues songs (as I've long been saying in my own work). This isn't meant as an adequate argument against all notions of plagiarism on Dylan's part: just as an observation about the Rollins-Dylan case.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Kieran said...

I agree with you. Bob relocates lines from old poems, new poems, songs, books etc, and places them into a new context which is relevant to the song he's singing. Therefore, they become new lines, almost, but with reference to another's work. Mozart likewise opens his 24th piano concerto with some music that's similar to something by Bach, but it's now placed in a new setting and brought to somewhere new.

Similarly, Mozart's Requiem owes a little to Michael Haydn's Requiem: in both of these cases the "borrowings" don't reflect badly on Mozart since he's made something remarkably new from his raw materials and his music is generally immeasurably greater (certainly so, in the case of Haydn).

The difficulty comes in when an artist borrows because they have nothing else to say. If Bob used Too Much Monkey Business as the scaffold for Subterranean Homesick Blues, it was actually an inspired choice - and he went somewhere totally unexpected and original with the seed of someone elses idea. But in the egregious Beyond the Horizon, for instance, you actually sense that he has little to offer other than the feeble, loveless theft, and therefore he almost strays into plagiarism. I say "almost", because he acknowledges the theft in the song itself, and has since credited the previous authors of the work in his credits.

Rolling & Tumbling is another example of a witless, uninteresting photocopy of someone elses work, whereas Nettie Moore is a work where the source material is necessary for a greater, seemingly more personal statement by Dylan.

Bad artists copy, and great artists steal, as the cliche goes. Bob has done both, I think, and it shouldn't be held against him...

11:43 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I think it is disingenuous to use the word 'plagiarism' in an article on Dylan's quotations from other sources. As Kenneth Clark said of the great Renaissance artists, in his remarkable series Civilisation, "all great artists are borrowers". Dylan invariably transforms his borrowings into something different and often into something incomparably better. An alternative title to 'Love and Theft' might have been 'Love and Alchemy'.

9:34 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hey Pope - I think there's a bit of special pleading going on here. Bob Dylan doesn't always transform his borrowings, except insofar as he tells you they're part of his own story (as so many times in Chronicles Volume One). He doesn't make all those RL Stevenson and Jack London quotes into something "incomparably better". As you say yourself at the end, sometimes he just copies. Doesn't the word "plagiarism" have a right to pop its head up then? I think Kieran's assessment is closer to the mark. He recognises a "witless, uninteresting photocopy of someone else's work" here and there, while also recognising, far more often, that Dylan goes "somewhere totally unexpected and original with the seed of someone else's idea." And he gives examples.

11:08 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Just on the charge of "plagiarism", I think that the use of other peoples work is common in all arts, but most especially the blues and folks music, of which Bob is a master.

It could be that he justifies the plagiarisms by locating himself more firmly in these traditions. It's part of the process, and sometimes it leads to somewhere inspired, and other times the whole idea falls flat. It could be that this is how he would justify it, if indeed, he would ever feel the need to.

I tend to think he gets lazy and snatches at other peoples work to cover up his own barrenness. I wouldn't hold it against him, he's probably more sinned against than sinning, and if it works often enough to jump-start his muse, then he may even think it's worth it.

In other words, he maybe cynical in his foraging, but he may also think that the greater ends - when he achieves them - justify the lowly means, when he falls short.

Personally speaking, I'd love him to write a great song that was all his own idea, from start to finish. I wouldn't compare them, but I heard Paul Simon's new tune - The Aftermath - on the radio, and had give him credit. The lyrics were typically honed and interesting, witty and as original as his usually are.

Just a footnote: has anyone ever noticed that the bridge verse music of I Believe in You - by Bob - is the same as the chorus music of Homeward Bound? Or that the melody of Political World is the same as another Paul Simon tune, Allergies, from Hearts & Bones?

11:51 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Michael, I have to agree with you that Kieran’s post is “closer to the mark” than mine. However, I still object to the word ‘plagiarism’: Kieran illustrates his point with songs where Dylan’s usual transformative powers fail him; we know the process at work and merely say, of these less successful borrowings, that they haven’t worked. I don’t think it’s helpful to call Dylan a plagiarist – it inevitably plays into the hands of those people who don’t like Dylan and have never really tried to understand his art. I suppose that is what my special pleading was about.

I began reading Scott Warmuth’s essay, ‘Bob Charlatan’, with the uneasy feeling that this would destroy my faith in a book that I absolutely loved. In fact the reverse was true. He has unearthed a complexity to ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ that makes me admire the work more rather than less. Okay, so it changes the way I read it. No longer is it a conventional autobiography (not that it was ever that conventional); it can now the seen to be the construction of yet another series of masks by the perennial shape-shifter. It seems that Bob Dylan is determined to go to his grave without ever telling us anything very much about Robert Zimmerman!

6:00 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Agreed, Leo - but you can surely see that another way of reacting to the revelations from Scott Warmuth about passages from Chronicles Volume One might be with great disappointment - great disappointment that whole paragraphs that were very reasonably assumed to be, and praised as, terrific prose by Bob Dylan, turn out to be "copied out", as we used to say at school, from prose by other writers.

Now you may say - I might say myself - that that isn't plagiarism but literary quilt-making, or postmodernist game-playing, or something else very Dylanesque and clever. But to ask a simple question from the same starting-point: ie from the fact that whole paragraphs reasonably assumed to be, and praised as, terrific prose by Bob Dylan, proved to have been copied out from prose by other writers: if that isn't plagiarism, what is?

8:04 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

Hi Michael
The great marxist critique Walter Benjamin had many interesting things to say about originality in his seminal piece ,The "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" 1936.

Whilst not dealing with the issue of plagiarism per se, he does discuss the notion of "aura" around an original artefact. He says "The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition".

Music is now well used to the idea of "sampling" albeit with credit and presumably royalties to the original writer, jazz musicians are always referencing the styles and riffs of their heroes,and the art world was turned on it's head by the genius of ace forger John Myatt, who exposed the greed, and gullibility of those who would buy a Matisse just for the signature.

Whether Dylan borrows from Henry Timrod because he is lazy or lacks his own ideas, to me is less noteworthy than the fact that before Dylan I had never heard of Timrod

joe

8:32 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

ps

or for that matter Henry Rollins!!

maybe dylan will give his career a boost

9:32 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

There's some great points being made here, and I think a saving grace (to re-coin a phrase!) of Dylan's is that he must know full well that everything he writes will be analysed, sourced and pored over - and yet he never changed his methods!

He KNOWS that someday the lines would be shown to have come from elsewhere - or if he doesn't know this, then he's either a fool, or he hasn't been paying attention. So perhaps it IS part of a valid patchwork, a collaboration between Dylan and his audience (and the great writers who preceded him) in presenting the songs and book this way.

I mean, it's kind of obvious why he called that album Love & Theft, and since then he's been quite free with the theft, if not so explicitly with the love...

9:54 pm  
Blogger Damian said...

I understand some of the concerns expressed here, but I too feel that “plagiarism” is the wrong term.

My feeling is that there are 2 possible reasons why Dylan is doing this:

1) He is playing games with his audience. The Jokerman is daring us to find the source of the lyric.
2) It is his way of paying homage to (mostly) obscure or forgotten writers who have impressed him.

It could well be a combination of the two. Could it be that all of Dylan’s post 1997 work (including Chronicles) is a collage of other people’s work? Fascinating.

2:10 am  
Blogger Glenn said...

If you used the word "plagiarism" in, say, the art world, you would be laughed out of the building, since appropriation is not only accepted, but encouraged, ever since Duchamp. But as John Cage said, writing is 50 years behind painting ...

7:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first time I noticed Dylan's propensity to do more than 'borrow' the odd line was about 30 years ago. I bought a Rev Gary Davis record and was shocked to hear 'You've Got to Move' as it sounded so much like 'You've Gotta Serve Somebody'.

I have just played Rev Gary Davis again: A wonderful performance-great spirit with HUMILITY. Jack

8:36 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Michael, I think we'll just have to disagree on this one. Yes, from a certain point of view it can of course be called plagiarism. But that is such a perjorative term that I don't find it useful in this instance. I don't think it does justice to the creative achievement of 'Chronicles' which, for all its borrowings, has a clear uniformity of style, and a voice that we all recognise as Dylan's. This is not the work of a lazy man who finds it easier to cut and paste than to write new prose (any more than Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ is the product of a cut-and-paste merchant ); it is the work an artist crafting a 'factionalised' life. Are we disappointed that line between fact and fiction is so blurred? Maybe. Are we surprised? No – Dylan has spent a lifetime creating false trails.

8:49 am  
Blogger joe butler said...

Or maybe it's a stitch up between Dylan and Rollins.
they could be in cahoots and having a laugh at all the
Dylanologists

9:39 am  
Anonymous Jeff said...

Frankly I'm surprised anyone is giving this idea much attention. I found the connections between Rollins and Dylan most likely coincidental and certainly without significance.

Did you read Goon Talk's analysis of the "Full length leather coat" line? It consists of the fact that Rollins and Dylan both mention them, and yet Mr. Goon concludes "Much of Time Out of Mind is constructed as a reflection of Rollins".

Strikes me as someone who is attempting to hitch Rollins' pathetic little wagon to Bob's star.

3:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am simply amazed to hear the dylan fandom defend their hero. The fact is that the man has deliberately taken the works of others, place his name upon it, copyrighted it, and made money from it. He's collecting song writing royalties from Sugar Baby on Love and Theft. I guess he loved the original so much he just had to steal it. Some folks seem to have difficulty with calling it plagiarism. How about thievery?

5:25 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

"Thievery" is fine, Anonymous, but then possession is nine-tenths of the law. Dylan steals in full view, expecting to be recognised as he does it. So perhaps we should look yet again for another word to describe it?

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael,
First of all sorry I originally posted this in the wrong comments section. Back to the topic.
I may be wrong here and I have certainly not carried out any research whatsoever, but the Rollin's lines seem familiar, certainly when I originally heard Dylan's "versions" sung there was a sence of recognition on my part. Are there any earlier suggestions of these lines from previous writers / traditional songs etc ?

It would be an interesting research project for someone to look at the words of other prolific writers checking for similarity with other previous artists and traditional texts.

9:49 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I think another point to be made in this discussion is that Dylan steals / plagiarises / borrows when he thinks he can do something creative with his source material. When he finds something he likes that he feels he can’t improve, he simply covers it. I am thinking of some of the wonderful covers he has done in the last ten or so years – ‘Borderline’, ‘The End of Innocence’ and ‘Mutineer’, for example. I have always thought that songs like these are ones that Dylan wished he’d written himself. But he didn’t write them, so all he could do was sing them, which he did hauntingly. I think he knows when to love and when to thieve….

9:59 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Pope Leo is one of my favourite popes, but I must suggest that here he speaks less than infallibly. Rolling & Tumbling is just a straight-forward heist. There's little love in it, nothing new (except it's credited solo to Bob Dylan) and it's not strictly speaking a cover-version, either.

Bob DOES take artlessly, no question about it. I don't have the ratios to hand, but he isn't always clever about it. There's "thievery", which is correct, and appropriation, which he's often successful at too....

8:29 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Kieran, "less than infallibly" fair enough; as long as you don't think it's complete papal bull...

2:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kieran

Are you seriously suggesting that Dylan has copied Paul Simon's melodies and that Simon is original ?

I really like Paul Simon and he is a very gifted songwriter but as far as originality goes...Bach, Martin Carthy, Los Lobos,Bill Malone, Heidi Berg,Boyoya Boys,etc, may take a different view. On his new album he has used Rev. Gates 1941 sermon "Get Ready For Christmas".

I believe that you weaken your arguement by making these sort of claims about other artists such as Springsteen,etc. I really like Neil Young despite the fact that he tends to use the same melodies ( as Springsteen does ) for a number of his own songs.

I tend to believe that with music and songs an element of re-using chord sequences,phrases,etc,is inevitable.

Surely the fact that Dylan like many others has covered Rollin & Tumblin and added words is not a sin or means he is unoriginal...he loves this song.

Dylan is in very good company indeed:Shakespeare,London,etc have been accused of plagiarism.

Dylan's greatness has more to do with change and not wanting to stay the same ...Simon and Springsteen are safe artists that do everthing they can to produce an album they know their fans will like. Remember when Springsteen did the Unplugged album and did not have the integrity to unplug? Remember when Dylan said "I wish...you would'nt clap so ...hard." ( You may mention "The Capeman" as evidence of creativity ..I would then have to refer to Renaldo & Clara,Masked & Anonymous and,of course, the glorious Theme Time Radio Hour.

I will leave the last word to Michael.."Dylan uses much more than language in his art...His finished works of art are his recordings.Like his vocal performances and and his music,his words are just ingredients"(Song & Dance Man).

Paul

9:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone once compared Dylan's creative mind to a cement mixer. That's how it used to seem. Like any of us, whether creative or not, he would take in other people's ideas, thoughts, tunes, poetic lines, etc., and they would get mixed up in there, but then unlike most of us, he would then shovel out these new works, and they would often be astoshingly fresh. It used to seem like an unconscious process. Now, in recent years, we can see so much conscious borrowing, lifting of whole chunks of other people's work. If what Dylan is now so frequently doing is not plagiarism, very little is. "What's at the other end of the pipe" was the question posed to him in the Getting to Dylan documentary (the interviewer had used the example of Schubert to probe where Dylan's inspiration came from.) Dylan's answer was, "God, I guess." Unfortunely the answer nowadays would more likely be Timrod, Rollings, that Confessions of a Yakuza author, or whoever Dylan happens to be syphoning at the present time. Bob, if there's an original thought left in there, we could sure use right now.

11:25 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi Paul,

"Are you seriously suggesting that Dylan has copied Paul Simon's melodies and that Simon is original ?"

The melodies are the same, regardless of how he came across them, and Paul Simon wrote them before Dylan. Paul Simon, as you rightly say, has taken from Bach and others, and I remember that after he recorded Graceland, members of Los Lobos were saying he explicitly took their music and called it his. It was an accusation that may have tarnished whatever he achieved with Graceland, because other also accused him of a form of musical colonialisation, whereby he went to Africa and came back with booty he'd claimed he'd made himself.

I didn't mention the Boss - I don't know why you brought him up - but a good example of witless plundering is Bruce's Book of Dreams, which is obviously a lift from Series of Dreams, but with little or no art involved and definitely no improvement.

Likewise, Bruce's 57 Channels is a poor man's TV Talking Song - even down to the Elvis line. Bruce isn't anywhere near Dylan as a writer, and when he does stuff like this, it just looks like bad art.

Rolling & Tumbling isn't "new" under Dylan. He just takes it, adds a few standard bluesy lines of his own, but he doesn't make it a new enough song that he could properly put his name as the sole author. Nor did Muddy Waters, when HE called it his, either! And this is why I said that a defence Dylan could resort to is the precedent within the folk tradition of wearing someone elses clothes - but saying they're your own.

-----

Pope Leo,

It ain't Papal Bull, no! That's so funny, I spilt my coffee!

11:17 am  
Anonymous A Defrocked Priest said...

Speaking of Dylan & that infinitely lesser artist, Paul Simon, here is a nice version of 'Sound of Silence' by them both:

http://www.wat.tv/video/paul-simon-bob-dylan-the-sound-1x1an_2ey7h_.html

5:45 am  

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