September 14, 2006

Ripping off Henry Timrod.

Or perhaps more aptly, making Henry Timrod famous. Here's the evidence that Bob Dylan took bits from Timrod's poetry to do the lyrics for "Modern Times." But Bob needn't worry. Timrod won't sue or even complain. He's from the mid-19th century (and was known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy). Should we feel bad about Bob?
This isn’t the first time fans have found striking similarities between Mr. Dylan’s lyrics and the words of other writers. On his last album, “Love and Theft,” a fan spotted about a dozen passages similar to lines from “Confessions of a Yakuza,” a gangster novel written by Junichi Saga, an obscure Japanese writer. Other fans have pointed out the numerous references to lines of dialogue from movies and dramas that appear throughout Mr. Dylan’s oeuvre. Example: “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” echoes a line from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

This time around 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.”
Well, theft itself is a traditional "process," but it would still piss me off if someone robbed me, either with a six gun or a fountain pen.

At least Dylan called an album “Love and Theft,” and he's repeatedly presented himself as a thief in various lyrics. To have Bob Dylan steal some of your phrases and the Dylan fanatics ferret out the connection he declined to tell us about is to get publicity you never would have gotten otherwise. You should be delighted, or, if you're dead, like Henry Timrod, we'll imagine you delighted, to have the grand old lyrics-master steal your words and send his listeners off to discover you.

Or do you think I'm ignoring principle and letting Dylan off the hook because I like him?


markrose said...

Can we really fault Bob Dylan for anything, especially plagarism. Dylan has written so many words over such a long period of time that outside sources naturally filter into his work. Come to think of it - his name is plagarized. I was in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan recently and they were playing Dylan's new album. It sounded like J.J. Cale with a bit of an edge. Is he producing music for iPod commercials to be sold at Starbuck's? If it's true that Dylan ripped off Timrod it doesn't make me think less of him - it makes me curious about this fellow Timrod. Was he the Bob Dylan precursor? Anyway, what can Bob Dylan possibly say that he hasn't said already? Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule!

Laura Reynolds said...

I don't think we know enough (or at least I don't) about how Dylan write lyrics, much less how his mind works. He clearly has read a lot of material and written a lot so if some things overlap its probably inevitable. I'll say your giving him a pass but so am I.

KCFleming said...

Looks like he has borrowed a few well-turned phrases at best. he didn't lift entire paragraphs or even sentences and claim them as his own. This is pretty weak stuff.

I suspect he did steal these phrases.
So what?
If he had cut and pasted an entire Sylvia Plath or Richard Brautigan poem, well, you'd have cause for complaint.

But a few lines here and there?
Feh. If this is plagiarism, nothing more need ever be written: it's all been said before, in different ways, more or less.

An acknowledgement in the liner notes (remember those?) seems appropriate, but double Feh.

KCFleming said...

Re: sympathy for those who non-volently steal from others

Given the death of the writer and the decades long past, I believe the author's work is within the public domain. While correct attribution is certainly an issue, what else was done here that relates to theft and crime?

Joan said...

I'm with Pogo here, this seems more like "sampling" than plagiarism. I'm OK with it. To quote a line or phrase is more than acceptable -- everyone does it all the time. If we had to give attributions every time anyone quoted Shakespeare, practically everything would come would footnotes. If Dylan had lifted entire stanzas or complete poems, that would be different.

JohnK: while some may find your anecdote charming, I think it just shows what an asshole Dylan is. Sure, both he and Tom Petty could well afford that guitar, but what of the shop owner? Yeah, he's probably comfortably well-off, too, but I bet the clerks who were staffing that day about died when they realized that guitar had walked off. Not cool.

Richard Dolan said...

I think Pogo gets it exactly right. The article says that Dylan took a couple of phrases from an obscure poem -- "frailer than a flower" and "precious hours" -- and then combined and used them in a lyric. That's not plagiarism or intellectual theft -- it's what poetry, if it's any good, is supposed to inspire. If it's really good -- "sharper than a serpent's tooth," "a rose by any other name ...", etc. -- it gets the distinct honor of becoming a cliche. And it makes no difference that, once such a phrase becomes a cliche, everyone recognizes the borrowing. Part of the power and point of poetry is to come up with turns of phrase that imbed themselves into the language, that become suggestive and stay with you long after you've forgotten the source. I came across two recently that I'm sure I will use long after I forget where I first saw them I(Paul Auster, Brooklyn Follies) -- "all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cram the dump sites of contemporary wisdom," which would apply to a lot of blogblather about Iraq and many other subjects; and "of all which past, the sorrow only stays."

There are two aspects of this story that struck me. First, it's interesting that Dylan's choice of these phrases -- they have the vague and highfalutin' ring that he always loved, but are more towards the saccharine end of things than I normally associate with him -- contrasts sharply with the raspy, almost anti-musical quality that his signing tone has taken on. Nothing sweet or saccharine there.

Second, Ann's reaction to this story -- comparing Dylan's recycling of a few fancy phrases for his own purposes to a straightforward case of plagiarism -- is just as interesting. Perhaps living and working in an academic environment makes one hypersensitive to any use of another's words. But to call this "theft" and wonder whether she is "ignoring principle and letting Dylan off the hook" is a bit over the top. If what Dylan did is artistically objectionable, then you're likely to find most of contemporary literature, music and art objectionable. In many ways, it's all a big conversation about itself, where writers, artists and musicians quote or paraphrase snippets from other current or former writers, artists and musicians with abandon. And there's nothing new in that, either.

Unknown said...

If it is apparent that he took lines directly from the author, I would hope he would simply give the author credit in the liner notes. The anecdote about Dylan taking the Martin reminds me of a story about Frank Lloyd Wright, who apparently regularly stole art and drawing items from the University Book Store in Madison and his wife would come in at the end of the month to pay for what he stole (unbeknownst to Mr. Wright, who probably felt the UBS should probably give him the items).

Another Dylan story that I love - it may be urban legend. The Replacements (one of my favorite bands) were having some sort of after-show or recording party. Dylan showed up and began to pour himself a beer from the keg. Tommy Stinson, the Replacements' bassist, came up to him and said "Two Bucks Fucker" and Dylan paid up. I've always liked that irreverent attitude in artists, especially musicians.

Palladian said...

Artists quoting from other artists, whether it be songwriters, painters, or architects, is an ancient and entirely acceptable and commendable practice. It's the basis of all art, in fact, and no one would have given it a second thought until relatively recently. There is a difference between plagarism and influence, hommage and variation, of course, but I don't think the line is that fuzzy. One could even argue that language, by its nature, encourages the practice. I didn't invent any of the words I'm using now, yet I'm expressing original (perhaps) thoughts with them. None of us create onto a tabula rasa; though if we do rasa our tabulae, we surely remember the words we scraped off.

JohnF said...

Dylan's generation (maybe that word is a little broad here) was famous for having a screw-you attitude toward most laws or other features of square life. So I'm sure that's his attitude toward stealing stuff. What else is new?

Troy said...

Perhaps Dylan's lyrics should be run through We could see what his plagiarism score is.

I was taking a Medieval English Lit. course in college and I swear there was a poem (Anonymous and I can't find the poem or remember it right off the top...) but I swear A Hard Rain... is a ripoff of an old Medieval -- rhythm and the "Oh where are you now..." lyric.

Gordon Freece said...

"The folk process"? The actual folk process is unknown, unpaid amateurs borrowing from each other, and more often than not the works they produce by borrowing are more in the nature of modifications of existing songs, than new works containing old ideas. Folk songs tend to exist in multiple differing versions.

None of this has anything to do with an internationally famous multimillionaire who slaps his name all over everything he does and aggressively protects his intellectual property in court.

It may be an "homage" or "reference" or whatever, but it ain't the "folks process".

To have Bob Dylan steal some of your phrases and the Dylan fanatics ferret out the connection he declined to tell us about is to get publicity you never would have gotten otherwise. You should be delighted...

Yeah, just about as delighted as I would be about droit de seigneur. It's a privilege for me if somebody enormously wealthier than me makes money by selling my work, and not only pays me no royalties, but doesn't even give me credit? I should be grateful for the publicity? No, I should be angry and disgusted.

Gordon Freece said...

s/folks/folk/, oops.

John Stodder said...

This kind of borrowing is central to Dylan's art, and he is generally -- when asked -- pretty open about it. He told Robert Hilburn of the LA Times that virtually all of his songs begin with another song, over which he writes his lyrics, and then makes small changes in the melody or chord pattern to make it his own. Asked why he did this, he said simply that writing music was not his strength.

I agree, too, that borrowing a few phrases from some poems or a novel to incorporate into wholly new works of art is nowhere near plagiarism. Dylan would probably say it is a kind of private tribute. Certainly, he is not a writer who comes up short for interesting phrases. He didn't need these lines--he just thought he could do something with them.

Obviously, this issue is in the eye of the beholder. On this thread, the people who think it is plagiarism already dislike Dylan, and the people who don't already love him. I would be shocked if anyone who until now thought Dylan was good and "Modern Times" a good album would be turned around by this issue. If you "get" Dylan, you "get" this part of Dylan.

Meade said...

But what should be interesting, if you "get" Dylan, is that he stopped his borrowing, stealing, plagiarizing - whatever you want to call it - in 1965 with "Bringing It All Back Home" and then in 2001, he started stealing again.

As one commenter at the website linked to in that NYT's article suggested, maybe he just ran out of his own creative ideas. What's worse, for those of us who like his best work from the sixties - Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline - we wait years for a new album and what we get is ripped off stuff that isn't even reworked very well:

"when love and theft came out and people realised it was [Dylan] just using other guys songs and putting new words to them they thought, oh yeah? oh well, it's [Dylan], we'll forgive him, he's a genius and everything.

then we wait 5 years and what do we get? [Modern Times - ] the same... thing but with worse tunes, and worse words."

Too true.

Ann Althouse said...

1. I never used the word plagiarism. I did say theft, but I wasn't condemning it at all. Why anyone thinks I'm going way too far against Dylan is beyond me. Didn't Picasso say, when examining a painting, "I'm looking for things to steal"? And that was considered quite brilliant.

2. If Dylan openly walked out of that store with the guitar, I don't even consider that stealing. If they did nothing to take it back, it's almost something you could see as a gift. But if not, they should have simply sent him a bill. What's the point of calling Tom Petty and why did Petty pay? That's his problem. I don't think it says much about Dylan except maybe as a guy who likes to test how obsequious people are being to him. In that view of it, that Replacements guy passed the test.

3. Jason, don't you know he's the voice of a generation? Are you calling us all a bunch of idiots?

KCFleming said...

Re: "I despise Dylan. Always have."

Really? He sings songs.
What's to "despise"? How strange.

I despise Castro, Mao, and Stalin and, for similar reasons, my old boss.
But Dylan?
What's the point? It's not like anyone can make you listen or anything. It's like being mad at a certain kind of food you never eat.

A conversation:
"I despise Tater Tots."
"Well, don't eat any then."
"Um, OK."

See? Who cares? Think of it as your musical broccoli.

Roger Sweeny said...

Yes, as through this world I've wandered I've seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.

Woody Guthrie

Meade said...

"I did say theft, but I wasn't condemning it at all. "

But if you weren't condemning it at all,
off of what "hook" might you be letting him?

John Stodder said...

Where has it been said that "Love and Theft" is Dylan "using other guys' songs?" What I've read is that he borrowed a few phrases from a Japanese mystery novel, including the title, which he put in quotes.

I do find his appropriation of "Rolling and Tumbling" uncredited a little fishy. But it's in plain sight. Every blues-rock band of the 60s did that song.

It's my recollection that the Stones called Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" a "traditional, arranged by Jagger/Richard."

knox said...

"Henry Timrod" heee!

"Dr. Henry Timrod, I presume...?"

something about that name makes me giggle.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to think dylan is running out of material.

Jazz Bass said...

Meade said...


Bring it on Home documentary? Amazing roll?

If you say so.

But you're right about "the record before that" being pretty good. And then he started trying to be his own producer, right? Hmm... maybe he should stick to singing and song writing and leave the producing to the pros?

No dope here, man, but I'll politely pass your joint on to the sucker to my left and take the contact high off you guys.

Tanks. Like, wow, dude.

elquesefue said...

What I want to know is, where did he get:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of b*tches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church, said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

Is that Dylan or is that just weird old America? Amazing old his references are and always have been. From the beginning he was singing about roosters crowing. We're still in the country folks. Cows, porkchops, pies. Still in the tough cities--orphanages. Still a world where sides must be chosen. Where there's fighting to be done because someone's coming after us, hitting us from behind. Yet he manages to be funny. In the middle of it all, a man needs a woman even if he wished he wouldn't--even when he doesn't know how to really love--he knows love is the best thing there is.

Anonymous said...

Why all the agonising? Get with the programme, guys. It's more than 20 years ago that Dylan wrote: 'If there's an original thought out there, I coould use one right now' - ironically while writing the ground-breaking Brownsville Girl, one of his fiinest lyrical triumphs.
Like a Days of 49er, Dylan has always quarried for nuggets of literary gold. The John Wesley Harding album is packed with lines straight out of the Old Testament, but from lesser-read books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Chronicles (!).
Most of the songs from Under The Red Sky have their lyrical origins in nursery rhymes. And yes, Hard Rain and a hundred other songs owe something to old English and Irish folk lyrics and melodies, but Dylan has given us back much more than he owes. The most obvious 'steal' in Modern Times, if you want to use that word, although I like to look on it as more of a tribute, is in fact the melody for Beyond The Horizon, clearly taken from Northern Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy's Red Sails In The Sunset, written in the 1950s - and it's interesting that as Kennedy sees red sails in the sunset (at Portstewart on the North Antrim coast) Dylan sees 'beyond the horizon'. Kind of sums him up, that he's always looking that bit further into the distance, searchng for, well, we now not what. Part of Dylan's genius is that he takes original ideas, and adds a little, here and there, either in the construction of melodies or in his adaptation of ethereal ideas.
In fact, Dylan's encylopaedic knowledge of the work of poets and songwriters over the centuries can't help but inflluence his own work - otherwise, what's the point? Many of his lines can also be found in old b&w movies, typically in the gangster and western genres. There is no finality in art. In Modern Times, Dylan sings 'I've been conjuring up all these lond-dead souls, from their crumbling tombs'.
The guitar story is interesting. Dylan seems to have a thing about old Martins. He tried one out from a local music shop owner while re-recording some Blood On The Tracks material in Minneapolis. I heard he scratched it up a bit and only agreed to pay for it reluctantly. However, to show the other side of him, he later gave it to a friend was disabled in a road accident. It was worth thousands of dollars when Dylan gifted it to a friend who had fallen on hard times and would be worth a small fortune now.
I also heard from some Welsh miners that in 1984 when they were on strike in the UK, they received dozens of tickets 'from an unknown source' for the Dylan concert at Wembley Stadium (otherwise a sell-out).
Personality wise, I'm sure he can also be a right SOAB. He's surely nobody's fool to have survived in his business on his own terms for so long, with his integrity intact and untouched by enemies, doubters, merchants and thieves. But before you call him any dirty names, you better think twice.