Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tangled Up In Clues

In a recent (excellently written) article byScott Warmuth, the issue of Dylan's alleged penchant for plaigarism has again risen its ugly head. (You can read the article here.) The most recent accusation is that many of the lyrics from Dylan's new album Modern Times were lifted from Henry Timrod, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Confederacy. The previous accusation was that Dylan's Love and Theft borrowed heavily from a novel by Junichi Saga titled Confessions of a Yakuza. If you take a look at the evidence compiled against Dylan, the similarities are clear. If poor Bob were a student in one of my classes, no doubt I would have taken him down for attempting to pass off another's work as his own.

But (and this is the point that Warmuth makes so eloquently in his essay), is catching Dylan in some Theify McThiefery really the point of his music? Do we really expect from songwriters the same strict sense of original expression that we expect from other writers? Isn't one of the great things about great songs the fact that they hit something strangely familiar? Or, even better, that they make something familiar suddenly, strangely, unfamiliar or new? I think one would be hard-pressed to prove that Dylan has ever been a radically "original" songwriter-- something that can doubtlessly be said about any American-influenced musician. Isn't it true that what is great about American music the fact that it all somehow derives from blues, country, gospel, or folk? And aren't all those musical forms just combination and re-combinations of the same 3 or 4 chords? the same 5 or 6 themes? the same handful of human emotions?

In my view, what has always been truly great about Dylan's music is its cryptic, compelling, fascinating, and maddening references. How many of us went and looked up "John Wesley Harding" after that album came out, or "Rubin Carter" after hearing Dylan's "Hurricane"? Or followed any other countless number of clues that Dylan so brilliantly embeds in his songs? Why do you think Dylan fans--and I mean the truely hard-core Dylan fans-- pride themselves on an almost encyclopedic and purist knowledge of his work? Dylan's music opens up the world in ways that few great songs are able... I, for one, will no doubt find myself embarking on yet another sleuthing trip after discovering this new Dylan reference to the poet Timrod. And I won't mind a bit that Dylan picked another intellectual pocket to send me there....


kgrady said...

Bob Dylan gets a lifetime pass to plagiarize all he wants. But I'd fail him, just so I could have him in my class again.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm not sure about the Junichi Saga novel, which looks to be still in copyright, but stealing the work of old poets is the best way to respect their craft. If it's in the public domain, the only way to keep the language and cadence of a poet's voice alive is to appropriate it. (If it's not, flogging it to within an inch of its marketable life seems to have a similar effect.) It'd have been nice to have a list of influences or somesuch, though... those shoutout lists never mention the important people.