Bob Dylan accused of plagiarism

by Richard on September 16, 2006

I’m probably way behind everyone else on this, but I was intrigued to learn that Bob Dylan has been accused of the plagiarism of the lyrics on his latest album Modern Times. The row centres upon the similarity of some of the lines of his songs to lines from the works of an obscure (to me, but I know next-to-nothing about such stuff) Confederate poet, Henry Timrod. There’s no denying the similarity of some of the lines, but is it plagiarism? Here’s one example.

A Rhapsody Of A Southern Winter Night
(Henry Timrod )

Oh! dost thou flatter falsely, Hope?
The day hath scarcely passed that saw thy birth,
Yet thy white wings are plumed to all their scope,
And hour by hour thine eyes have gathered light,
And grown so large and bright,
That my whole future life unfolds what seems,
Beneath their gentle beams,
A path that leads athwart some guiltless earth,
To which a star is dropping from the night!

Not many moons ago,
But when these leafless beds were all aglow
With summer’s dearest treasures, I
Was reading in this lonely garden-nook;
A July noon was cloudless in the sky,
And soon I put my shallow studies by;
Then, sick at heart, and angered by the book,
Which, in good sooth, was but the long-drawn sigh
Of some one who had quarreled with his kind,
Vexed at the very proofs which I had sought,
And all annoyed while all alert to find
A plausible likeness of my own dark thought,
I cast me down beneath yon oak’s wide boughs,
And, shielding with both hands my throbbing brows,
Watched lazily the shadows of my brain.
The feeble tide of peevishness went down,
And left a flat dull waste of dreary pain,
Which seemed to clog the blood in every vein;
The world, of course, put on its darkest frown –
In all its realms I saw no mortal crown
Which did not wound or crush some restless head;
And hope, and will, and motive, all were dead.
So, passive as a stone, I felt too low
To claim a kindred with the humblest flower;
Even that would bare its bosom to a shower,
While I henceforth would take no pains to live,
Nor place myself where I might feel or give
A single impulse whence a wish could grow.
There was a tulip scarce a gossamer’s throw
Beyond that platanus. A little child,
Most dear to me, looked through the fence and smiled
A hint that I should pluck it for her sake.
Ah, me! I trust I was not well awake –
The voice was very sweet,
Yet a faint languor kept me in my seat.
I saw a pouted lip, a toss, and heard
Some low expostulating tones, but stirred
Not even a leaf’s length, till the pretty fay,
Wondering, and half abashed at the wild feat,
Climbed the low pales, and laughed my gloom away.
And here again, but led by other powers,
A morning and a golden afternoon,
These happy stars, and yonder setting moon,
Have seen me speed, unreckoned and untasked,
A round of precious hours.
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked,
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers,
To justify a life of sensuous rest,
A question dear as home or heaven was asked,
And without language answered. I was blest!
Blest with those nameless boons too sweet to trust
Unto the telltale confidence of song.
Love to his own glad self is sometimes coy,
And even thus much doth seem to do him wrong;
While in the fears which chasten mortal joy,
Is one that shuts the lips, lest speech too free,
With the cold touch of hard reality,
Should turn its priceless jewels into dust.
Since that long kiss which closed the morning’s talk,
I have not strayed beyond this garden walk.
As yet a vague delight is all I know,
A sense of joy so wild ‘t is almost pain,
And like a trouble drives me to and fro,
And will not pause to count its own sweet gain.
I am so happy! that is all my thought.
To-morrow I will turn it round and round,
And seek to know its limits and its ground.
To-morrow I will task my heart to learn
The duties which shall spring from such a seed,
And where it must be sown, and how be wrought.
But oh! this reckless bliss is bliss indeed!
And for one day I choose to seal the urn
Wherein is shrined Love’s missal and his creed.
Meantime I give my fancy all it craves;
Like him who found the West when first he caught
The light that glittered from the world he sought,
And furled his sails till Dawn should show the land;
While in glad dreams he saw the ambient waves
Go rippling brightly up a golden strand.

Hath there not been a softer breath at play
In the long woodland aisles than often sweeps
At this rough season through their solemn deeps –
A gentle Ariel sent by gentle May,
Who knew it was the morn
On which a hope was born,
To greet the flower e’er it was fully blown,
And nurse it as some lily of her own?
And wherefore, save to grace a happy day,
Did the whole West at blushing sunset glow
With clouds that, floating up in bridal snow,
Passed with the festal eve, rose-crowned, away?
And now, if I may trust my straining sight,
The heavens appear with added stars to-night,
And deeper depths, and more celestial height,
Than hath been reached except in dreams or death.
Hush, sweetest South! I love thy delicate breath;
But hush! methought I felt an angel’s kiss!
Oh! all that lives is happy in my bliss.
That lonely fir, which always seems
As though it locked dark secrets in itself,
Hideth a gentle elf,
Whose wand shall send me soon a frolic troop
Of rainbow visions, and of moonlit dreams.
Can joy be weary, that my eyelids droop?
To-night I shall not seek my curtained nest,
But even here find rest.
Who whispered then? And what are they that peep
Betwixt the foliage in the tree-top there?
Come, Fairy Shadows! for the morn is near,
When to your sombre pine ye all must creep;
Come, ye wild pilots of the darkness, ere
My spirit sinks into the gulf of Sleep;
Even now it circles round and round the deep –
Appear! Appear!

When The Deal Goes Down
(Bob Dylan)

In the still of the night, in the world’s ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildered brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I’m haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

Well, the moon gives light and it shines by night
When I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O’r the road we’re bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

Well, I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they’re not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You’ll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that’s sayin’ it true
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

I’ve added emphasis to the relevant lines in case you missed them, because I’m sure I would have. As I say, I’m no expert in this kind of thing, but to my way of thinking the borrowing of phrases from others (conscious or otherwise) is not plagiarism or anything like it.

But what do you think? This is not the first time such accusations have been made, after all. Is Bob Dylan a creative genius, or shameless hack?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Beth 09.16.06 at 4:20 pm

Some would call it plagiarism, others would call it homage, or borrowing, or influence, or whatever. And remember that Dylan’s roots are in folk music, where very little is sacred!

Have to say, though, I don’t think this is one of his greatest moments. At his best, Dylan’s a poet. Here, he’s just a lyricist.

2

Ben Myers 09.17.06 at 6:45 am

Great post, Richard!

Dylan’s two latest albums, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, are both characterised by extensive quotations and allusions to earlier music — especially blues and American folk music. Dylan has been doing this very self-consciously, not as a plagiarist but as a master of these traditions — indeed, it’s no accident that even the titles of both these albums are in fact quotes (and “Love and Theft” even includes the quotation marks in the title)! So I think the accusations of plagiarism are simply ridiculous — just as it would be ridiculous to accuse Milton of “plagiarising” Homer and the Bible, or Mozart of “plagiarising” Haydn and J. C. Bach!

So anyway, in Dylan’s recent music, the really interesting thing is to identify the sources which he draws on, and then to look at the creative ways in which he transforms this material and makes it distinctively “Dylanesque”. A valuable resource now is the superb website, http://republika.pl/bobdylan/, which has annotated lyrics to these albums — the annotations point out numerous quotes and allusions to various folk, blues and gospel traditions. Michael Gray has also provided brilliant analysis of Dylan’s use of a wide range of literary and musical traditions (including folk, blues, gospel, and nursery rhymes), in Song and Dance Man III (London: Continuum, 2000).

3

Richard 09.17.06 at 7:25 am

I knew you’d have something to say about this, Ben! Thanks for that very helpful link.

4

Ben Myers 09.17.06 at 9:44 am

Yes, I couldn’t help myself!

5

E F Johnson 08.19.09 at 7:03 pm

There is a difference bewtween a term paper and a work of art.
Poetry in the lyrics makes reference to many things. You are confusing a tip of the hat with lawyer speak.

6

Richard Clark 08.21.09 at 4:06 pm

Bob Dylan Retains Same Illuminati Law Firm as George W. Bush in Fifteen Year Plagiarism Law Suit. Also suppresses Plaintiff’s First Amendment Rights acquiring a protective order designating all video taped depositions that are incriminating to Dylan confidential

Bob Dylan & his law firm acquired a confidentiality order in a fifteen year plagiarism law suit designating all discovery materials including fifty hours of incriminating video taped depositions as confidential suppressing Plaintiff James Damiano’s first amendment rights to warn the public of Judicial favoritism and corruption.

Camden NJ June 2, 2009 -Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and
lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan.

It is judicially uncontested by Bob Dylan and or Bob Dylan’s law firms Manatt, Phelps & Phillips , Parcher Hayes & Snyder, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Heck Brown and Sherry and Sony House Counsel that Bob Dylan and people in Bob Dylan’s entourage have solicited James Damiano’s songs and music for over ten years and eleven months, as per the law suit.

District Judge Jerome B. Simandle states in his decision “This court will accept as true Plaintiff’s allegations that Sony represented to him that he would be credited and compensated for his work if Dylan used it. Judge Simandle also stated in his decision “Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had access to his work.

http://www.jamesdamiano.com/

Richard Clark

uslawjournal@gmail.com

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