The Magpie Tendencies of Genius
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:
And there are other samplings of Timrod's poetry lifted virtually verbatim in Mr. Dylan's latest (click image to view larger):
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.
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.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:
“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 (pool.dylantree.com/phorum5/read.php?1,642969), 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.’ ”
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.”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.
“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.”
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.