Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Magpie Tendencies of Genius

Much to my surprise, it's reported in the NYTimes today that singer/songwriter/legend Bob Dylan frequently...what's the word....oh yeah....steals from other writers for his lyrics.

OK, so that's a bit harsh. Perhaps I should rephrase that...he borrows from other writers for his lyrics.

But then that brings to mind the old saying "Good artists borrow; great artists steal," and so, no, I'm much more comfortable, despite the harshness, saying Dylan steals from other writers.

Here's the essence of why this is news:

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Henry Timrod, sometimes known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy.

But maybe you’ve heard his words, if you’re one of the 320,000 people so far who have bought Bob Dylan’s latest album, “Modern Times,” which made its debut last week at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.

It seems that many of the lyrics on that album, Mr. Dylan’s first No. 1 album in 30 years (down to No. 3 this week), bear some strong echoes to the poems of Timrod, a Charleston native who wrote poems about the Civil War and died in 1867 at the age of 39.

“More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours,” the 65-year-old Mr. Dylan sings in “When the Deal Goes Down,” one of the songs on “Modern Times.” Compare that to these lines from Timrod’s “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”:

A round of precious hours
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.
And there are other samplings of Timrod's poetry lifted virtually verbatim in Mr. Dylan's latest (click image to view larger):

Fans of Dylan have taken extremely different views of this news:

Scott Warmuth, a disc jockey in Albuquerque and a former music director for WUSB, a public radio station in Stony Brook, on Long Island, discovered the concordances between Mr. Dylan’s lyrics and Timrod’s poetry by doing some judicious Google searches. Mr. Warmuth said he wasn’t surprised to find that Mr. Dylan had leaned on a strong influence in writing his lyrics.

“I think that’s the way Bob Dylan has always written songs,” he said. “It’s part of the folk process, even if you look from his first album until now.”[...]

Because Timrod is long dead and his work has fallen out of copyright — you can find his collected poems on the Internet — there is no legal claim that could be made against Mr. Dylan.

But some fans are bothered by the ethics of Mr. Dylan’s borrowing ways. “Bob really is a thieving little swine,” wrote one poster on Dylan Pool (,642969), a chat room where Mr. Warmuth posted his findings. “If it was anyone else we’d be stringing them up by their neck, but no, it’s Bobby Dee, and ‘the folk process.’ ”
The issues serves as a perfect example for not only the debate over how much borrowing or outright stealing is OK, but also whether geniuses get more license to do so than other artists:

In Mr. Dylan’s case, critics and fans have long described the songwriter’s magpie tendencies, looking upon that as a manifestation of his genius, not unlike other great writers and poets like T. S. Eliot or James Joyce who have referenced past works.
Reference...hmmm...that's an alternative to "steal" or "borrow" except there's a very easy test of whether one's talking about plagiarism or allusion:

[Christopher Ricks, a professor of the humanities at Boston University] said that one important distinguishing factor between plagiarism and allusion, which is common among poets and songwriters, is that “plagiarism wants you not to know the original, whereas allusion wants you to know.”

“When Eliot says, ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ — to have a line ending ‘to be’ when the most famous line uttered by Hamlet is ‘to be or not to be’ — then part of the fun and illumination in the Eliot poem is that you should know it,” he said. But he added: “I don’t think Dylan is alluding to Timrod. I don’t think people can say that you’re meant to know that it’s Timrod.”
So Dylan is stealin' --- plain and simple (and apparently this is not the first time [read the article for more examples]), but the question for me is whether that detracts from my admiration for him. It honestly doesn't. Timrod's work is in the public domain, Dylan's apparently a voracious reader of Civil War works, and Dylan's also one of our nation's most perceptive pop poets...for me it makes sense that he would read a line and then recall it later, perhaps remembering its source, perhaps not, when trying to capture an emotion or idea in a song. Should he retrace his steps if a line seems familiar and credit it on his CD ["Mr. Dylan does not acknowledge any debt to Timrod on “Modern Times.” The liner notes simply say “All songs written by Bob Dylan” (although some fans have noted online that the title of the album contains the letters of Timrod’s last name).]? I'm not so sure. I'd rather he move on to writing his next song and let the bloggers and fans deconstruct his art.

As Warmuth noted,

Dylan’s work is still original. “You could give the collected works of Henry Timrod to a bunch of people, but none of them are going to come up with Bob Dylan songs,” he said.
But that's easy for me to agree with...I'm not Henry Timrod. Perhaps he's stomping up a storm in heaven (or wherever he may be) cursing Dylan and the nation who sent his CD to #1 on the charts without due homage to a clear inspiration. Then again perhaps he too is simply too in awe of Dylan to be anything other than flattered.


Anonymous bnon said...

My take on this kind of worrying about plagiarism is that it's a kind of intellecutal prudishness or even fundamentalism. It's the whiff of sin, somehow, that excites those up in arms about BD et al. And perhaps the glee of exposing a hero is too much for some people to resist.

I can almost imagine that people who are outraged at the borrowing are cultural conservatives and those not bothered are avant-gardists.

9/14/2006 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger bsch said...

Honesty requires that credit is given where credit is due. I ran across this before when reading a poem published on the Modern Kicks blog. The words and phrases were nearly identical to a favorite song from Leonard Cohen's "Ten Songs", the refrain... "Alexandra leaving, Alexandra lost." I looked for some evidence of credit being given and have found none. It does'nt make me love the song less but it does reduce the respect that I have had for LC as a poet.
I think that at the very least, artists should respect artists.

9/14/2006 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger bsch said...

The poem I was refering to was,
"The Gods Abandon Anthony" by C.P. Cavafy. Posted on Modern Kicks, Dec. 08, 2005.

9/14/2006 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Didn't Bob Zimmerman steal his entire act, his whole persona, from Ramblin' Jack Elliott? I've never ever understood the love of Bob Dylan.

I think questions of stealing, or borrowing, or referencing, other artworks are questions which are decided over the long, long haul. I'm thinking 500 years or more. By then, whose work is worth saving and whose isn't will have already been decided, by forces well beyond any individual's control. At that point, precisely who came up with some idea or other is beside the point; what's important is it's part of our shared human heritage.

The cathedral at Chartres is, to me, a metaphor for human art. Most, if not all, of the individuals who worked on Chartres are anonymous, unknown to us. But there is their work.

We're all adding to Chartres every day. Centuries from now, some of what some of us did will still be there for people to see.

9/14/2006 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

Yes, Chris. BD stole his entire act from the authentic, original, non-plagiarizing Elliot Charles Adnopoz of Flatbush, NY, aka Ramblin' Jack.

9/14/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous christo Johnpherson said...

Were it to become common courtsey among responsible artists to acknowledge each and every source of "inspiration" I believe much of what remains "inspirational" in works of art would be diminished. Imagine a world where full disclosure was strictly practiced, while the resulting artistic footnoting would often be extremely interesting the actual act of keeping track of sources would bog down anyone let alone the creative person in the midst of some artistic epiphany. Obviously carrying this or anything to its logical extreme is essentially impossible and except to make a point, unnecessary. What is essential is to acknowledge is that there really are no completely original ideas but just original choices (sounds like a quote I've heard somewhere before) and while obscurity isn't the same thing as orginiality the idea that Bob Dylan would choose to "steal" from the likes of Junichi Saga and Henry Timrod is at the very least curious. Whether a coincidence or complete theft and for whatever the reason, Dylan is one of those artists who are scrutinized much more than most so while I can't begin to believe that he consciously leaves a breadcrumb trail to follow to these sources or others the scrutiny as resulted in evoking these people and that in itself is intersting.
Dylan has indeed often evoked a strange nebulous literary world, I recall as teenaged fan being made aware of names of numerous writers because the landscape of his songs were often litered with them. So while I never really thought of Dylan as a great writer I do believe at times he has been extemely successful at conjuring a world of where the atmosphere is quite suitable for literature and where new life is breathed into the names and works of great writers. That said, I've no idea whether the works of Henry Timrod are deserving of some revivial but now that he has been "outed" by this one particularly (overly) scrutinized artist he will certainly be read by some who have never heard of him before.

9/14/2006 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous michael said...

it doesnt bother me. it's part of the recycling process of life and art. i think timrod would be proud. i haven't looked at the times piece yet so im not sure how much was taken word for word and how much was taken and then altered to make something new. it's how i see my collage work. also i write songs and many of the lines in them come from things i overhear in bars, etc. they are good lines. i would never think to seek out the person who said them and attribute credit. i, on the otherhand, never claim credit for the final result either. but that's another discussion.

9/14/2006 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

This whole issue is a modern-day obsession, and I think is antithetical to the creative process. It's a way for lawyers and academics to be involved in the arts.

Granted, I think it would be wrong for an artist, or a corporation, to "steal" the work of a living artist (author, inventor, etc.), without the original artist getting any benefit from (the sale of) the work. But that's not what's going on here.

Dylan is working in the folk tradition, where it's common to recycle and alter lyrics and melodies and put them out as your own. Ever notice the similarity between between Girl from the North Country and Scarborough Fair? They both borrow from the same source. I remember George Harrison getting sued by the guy who wrote that bangalang shangalang song (He's So Fine) because part of My Sweet Lord had a similar melody. The court found him "guilty" and I think awarded the guy a dollar or something. Most blues and rock songs are variations on the same 1-4-5 chord progression. Should everyone who writes a song have to give credit to whatever anonymous musician first came up with the thing?

Thank goodness the bean-counters haven't been scrutinizing the arts for all that long. Otherwise Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Dylan, not to mention all the Italian Renaissance painters, might have decided not to bother. And if you happen to like folk, rock or blues music, well, that might not be around either.

9/14/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous sylvia bell said...

How about Ann Coulter's "borrowings"? Or the NY Times journalist?

If the idea that artists glean from others diminishes the concept of creativity, then the concept needs to be reconsidered.

9/14/2006 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger bsch said...

So stealing from the dead is OK? It looks like "cut and paste" poetry. It seems that Photoshop pastiches count as High Art these days.
The idea was that claiming work that is not your own without crediting it is dishonest.

9/14/2006 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

If you have a car and I steal it, then I have a car and you don't. If you have a line in a poem and I "steal" it, then we both have poems.

This is an issue if the "originator" is deprived in some way of the benefits of their creation. I had never heard of Henry Timrod before this, and if I listened to Dylan and didn't know about Timrod, I'm trying to imagine how Timrod would be harmed. On the other hand, now that this big SCANDAL has broken, I have heard of Timrod, and if I were interested I might check him out.

Perhaps instead of people making a big issue about all this "stealing", the whole process of footnoting could become its own artform (or academic discipline).

PS - Just for fun, trace the history of the figures in Manet's painting Luncheon on the Grass. Not only did he "steal" them, but he stole them from an artist who stole them from someone else...

9/14/2006 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

By the way, one of my favorite Dylan lines isn't even in a song. It's in Martin Scorcese's documentary about him. There's some footage of a concert he played in England, when he was just starting to perform with an electric guitar. Some of the fundamentalist folk fans (FFF's) in the audience were booing and calling him a traitor. He turned to his band and said "Play it fucking loud", and then launched into a great rendition of Like A Rolling Stone.

footnote: I did a Google search for "play it fucking loud", and as far as I can tell he didn't steal the line from anyone.

9/14/2006 01:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>The cathedral at Chartres is, >>>to me, a metaphor for human >>>art. Most, if not all, of the >>>individuals who worked on >>>Chartres are anonymous, unknown >>>to us. But there is their work.

Very well said, Chris. I think artists today are so self-obsessed that because we lost the "common goal" we are unable to achieve cathedrals anymore.

I guess I agree with many others here: if it's just one or two lines in a whole text that is merely collage. But if you are pasting whole paragraphs than that might be a little more problematic.

In that case a little mention in the thanks directory wouldn't hurt (especially in the case of a known artist taking from an unknown). But the great thing is that people aren't fooled up when someone takes something from someone else. Now we all know what comes from Timrod and it's going to be marked forever on Wikipedia.

Here's suave blues-folk rock stealin' from another Winkleman blogger:

"Honesty requires reading a poem..

Now... I looked for some evidence but have found none.

It does'nt make me love
Oooh no...It does'nt make me love

Lalala...." ;-P

Cedric Caspesyan

9/14/2006 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Brillo Boxes.
Sherrie Levine.
Rachel Whitread. To paraphrase Chuck D, you can't copyright a beat.

To steal is to see. It's impossible to actively perceive the world without "stealing". Besides, there is no such thing as an original thought, an original story. To parse Dylan's songbook for "someone else's" lyrics is to miss the point:

Plagiarism is passing off another's thoughts as your own. Magpie artists are on the lookout for specific elements that can help them, and they take those elements and use them to further their own thoughts.

9/14/2006 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Cedric, wait a minute... Where the hell did I put my harmonica?

9/14/2006 03:05:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

bnon sez:
Yes, Chris. BD stole his entire act from the authentic, original, non-plagiarizing Elliot Charles Adnopoz of Flatbush, NY, aka Ramblin' Jack.

Now that's funny.

9/14/2006 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Treasure hunt!

1.) Find a "Bob Dylan" song that Bob Dylan didn't write or claim to write. hint: painted lady

2.) I always thought the 10,000 Maniacs song My Mother the War was a play on the tv show My Mother the Car (which I guess it partly was), but it also came (uncredited)from a character in a book who said "My mother is the war". Can you find it?

3.) Not only did Radiohead take their name from a song by another group, but their marketing division W.A.S.T.E. is named (uncredited) after a fictitious organization in a novel.

Have fun busting these thieves!

9/14/2006 04:23:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

bonus question:

I lost my harmonica, Albert.

9/14/2006 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I am remembering that Dylan got a little of this on his last record. My guess is that the great prankster is having a laugh at all our expenses.

Timrod's work is doggerel, romantic cliches. Dylan is fixing it.

The culture is in the grips of some kind of sickness that puts value on nobodies taking lame swipes at hard working and functional people. Best strategy to combat it is to ignore it

9/14/2006 06:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if he took some of the lyrics from other poems, This is a great music record.


9/14/2006 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

ooh, can i drop an ad in my comment, too?

9/14/2006 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I am giving in to temptation, everyone else has avoided it but this seems too relevant:

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool's gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

9/14/2006 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...

The Magpie Tendencies of Genius:

Michelangelo (is said by the British Museum to have) claimed that he learned everything by himself, or from nature, unless his inspiration came from God Himself. If he did say this, it is a flat-out lie. Michelangelo borrowed extensively from other artists, ancient and Renaissance.

9/15/2006 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'd be a lot more willing to forgive Dylan's magpie tendencies if I actually liked his music. I don't care if something is derivative, I just want it to be good.

I heard one of his songs on the radio this morning and his lyrics quoted Led Zeppelin, fer cryin out loud.

Oh, okay, it wasn't originally Led Zeppelin, either. But still.

9/15/2006 09:17:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Regarding EWs criteria for someone being a great artist (which I gave him a hard time about, but still pretty much agree with), that the two main factors are how many people s/he reached, and how many artists s/he influenced, can you think of any living musical artist that even comes close to Dylan? Whether you personally like his work is another matter, but it seems absurd to just dismiss him.

I would not feel so all alone.

9/15/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I'm in headphoneland this morning at my day gig, listening to Blonde on Blonde. I've always thought 4th Time Around sounded vaguely like Norwegian Wood, but never really thought much more about it. Today I happened to notice how much the tone and subject matter of the lyrics were similar too. So I did a search.

From the Wikipedia entry on Norwegian Wood: "Lennon acknowledged being strongly influenced by Bob Dylan during this time period, and the rather opaque lyrics of "Norwegian Wood" seem to reflect this. Dylan responded with "4th Time Around", a song boasting a similar melody, subject matter and lyrical delivery. Rock journalists and even Lennon himself felt it to be a rather pointed parody of "Wood", though Lennon later told his biographer that he considered Dylan's effort to be more a playful homage."

So, just to be clear, I consider this type of quoting, referring, borrowing and stealing to be a good thing. It's rampant among artists of all sorts, and is part of the playful conversation among them. The idea of having to credit and footnote everything is dreadful, and sure puts a damper on the creative process, not to mention on the process of discovery that a viewer/reader/listener experiences when they find these connections.

9/15/2006 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Carl Hendrickson said...

What a string of elitist puffery this is. For God's sake it's just music and damn good music at that. Dylan like every artist borrows. If they are alive and aware they see and hear and creativity comes forth from their ability to freshly interpret, communicate, stimulate.

Bravo to Dylan who has relentlessly "borrowed" from the roots of truly American bred music--this time from the blue sounds of countless son's of slaves.

9/15/2006 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger dan said...

"...perhaps remembering its source, perhaps not..."

Just one thing Ed. You can be 100% sure he remembered and did it on purpose. Things like this don't just pop mindlessly to you, so that you only remember, later when people point it out to you.

Whether it's okay or not is a different story, but he definitely knew he was lifting from the source.

Personally, I think it's okay but it ought to be acknowledged. "Hey I liked this guy Timrod's poems and used a few of his rhymes, his thoughts, that struck me as especially apt." No problem there. That he didn't say it, though, seems sneaky to me. Why not acknowledge the hard work of someone whose work you liked enough to "borrow"?

9/15/2006 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

David asks:
...can you think of any living musical artist that even comes close to Dylan?

Axl Rose?

9/15/2006 10:46:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Is he still alive?

9/16/2006 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You can be 100% sure he remembered and did it on purpose.

You're probably right, Dan. Unless he has a photographic memory or something like that.

I tend to not assume others' minds work the way mine does, though, so....

Why he chose not to acknowledge it, if indeed the lifting was conscious, is a good question, but he may have lifted from so many other sources for those songs that it simply seemed pointless. There might be a hundred the end, for me, the question is whether his new lyrics are the product of someone else's vision or his own. I'm fairly confident they're of his own, even if a collage of those of others.

9/16/2006 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

"For a century there have usually been two versions of each art, one real, but poor and underground, and one fake, although rich and conspicuous. The latter ingests the former as needed." -Donald Judd

A thank you in the liner notes would be appropriate if Timrod served as inspiration in a such a vast way (not just one reference, but many).

I have always wished some art historian or critic would dedicate their life to researching little known predecessors or inspirations for great works of art, documenting dates. If an artist has achieved a certain degree of recognition already, they can borrow, steal or re-do just about anything, and get credit for it, while the unknowns who inspired them just go on making their work, and reading about the geniuses in Art in America.

9/17/2006 12:54:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

It isn't by chance that his last album was titled "Love & Theft." This really is part of the folk tradition, out of which Dylan came.

9/17/2006 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger raul said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/20/2006 02:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me at how inane, idiotic, and asinine people can be. For example, Muddy Watters didn't write "Rollin and Tumblin," he merely put his own stamp on it. Only a music illiterate would not understand Dylan's reference to this traditional tune. The same can be said about "Someday Baby." His ability to copyright these version of these songs is clearly based on the technicalities of copyright law, and no great theft or deception should be implied by anyone that isn't an imbecile. The other lines that some are claiming are "stolen" from the poet Timrod range from similar to vaguely similar, and are only tiny parts of the songs taken as a whole...implying that the songs are stolen is simply silly. When artists use lines from say, the Bible,...whether taken directly or merely alluded to...there is no expectation of citation. They are tidbits that have worked their way into your own conciousness. I have used such lines similar to those found in the Bible with no active knowledge that they were "borrowed" or influenced by a passage I had read or heard. The same should, unless proven otherwise, be assumed here with Dylan's songs and their "stolen" lines. At most, the "lines in question" are a few incidental allusions that indicate a passing influence that was incorporated into a work of his own (unless PROVEN otherwise). Just about every phrase any artist anywhere has ever given us has been uttered before somewhere in the annals of time. There are good reasons why simply using a few words that someone somewhere may have used before in some way does not diminish your ability to incorporate them into something that is indeed your own. That is why music labels have people like patent and copyright attornies working for them: to figure out where the line is drawn. Nothing like trying hard to make something over nothing....

9/24/2006 06:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minus the philosophy of art, this is a nasty little corner to get yourself into legally nowadays. Robbie williams and Green Day just got hammered for copyright infringement. Plus Williams has to pull an entire album and re-sequence the tracks. Record company nightmare.

1/17/2007 01:51:00 PM  

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