Essay

Bob Dylan: Henry Timrod Revisited

When Bob Dylan lifted lines from an obscure Civil War poet, he wasn't plagiarizing. He was sampling.

by Robert Polito

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!
                  —Henry Timrod, “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night,” from Poems (1860)


. . . and at times
A strange far look would come into his eyes,
As if he saw a vision in the skies.
                  —Henry Timrod, “A Vision of Poesy,” from Poems (1860)


The moon gives light and it shines by night
Well, I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O’er 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
                  —Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” from Modern Times (2006)

 

As a culture we appear to have forgotten how to experience works of art, or at least how to talk about them plausibly and smartly. The latest instance is the “controversy” shadowing Bob Dylan’s new record, Modern Times, wherein he recurrently adapts phrases from poems by Henry Timrod, a nearly-vanished 19th-century American poet, essayist, and Civil War newspaper correspondent.

That our nation’s most gifted and ambitious songwriter would revive Timrod on the number-one best-selling CD across America, Europe, and Australia might prompt a lively concatenation of responses, ranging from “Huh? Henry Timrod? Isn’t that interesting. . . .” to “Why?” But to narrow the Dylan/Timrod phenomenon (see the New York Times article “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines from Henry Timrod?” and a subsequent op-ed piece, “The Ballad of Henry Timrod,” by singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega) into a story of possible plagiarism is to confuse, well, art with a term paper.

Timrod was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1828, his arrival in this world falling two years after Stephen Foster but two years before Emily Dickinson. His work, too, might be styled as falling between theirs: sometimes dark and skeptical, other times mawkish and old-fashioned. (Dylan, I’m guessing, is fascinated by both aspects of Timrod, the antique alongside the brooding.) Often tagged the “laureate of the Confederacy”—a title apparently conferred upon him by none other than Tennyson—Timrod still shows up in anthologies because of the poems he wrote celebrating and then mourning the new Southern nation, particularly “Ethnogenesis” and “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery.” Early on, Whittier and Longfellow admired Timrod, and his “Ode” stands behind Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (and thus in turn behind Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”).

On Modern Times Dylan avoids anthology favorites, but his album contains at least ten instances of lines or phrases culled from seven different Timrod poems, mostly poems about love, friendship, death, and poetry . Dylan also quoted Timrod’s “Charleston” in “Cross the Green Mountain,” a song he contributed to the soundtrack of the 2003 Civil War film Gods and Generals; two years earlier he glanced at Timrod’s “Vision of Poesy” for “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” on his CD “Love and Theft.” (Various Dylan Web sites annotate his lyrics, but I found these two related sites invaluable: http://republika.pl/bobdylan/mt/ and http://republika.pl/bobdylan/lat/.)

From the dustup in the Times—after our paper of record found a middle-school teacher who branded Dylan “duplicitous,” Vega earnestly supposed that Dylan probably hadn’t lifted the texts “on purpose”—you might not guess that we’ve just lived through some two and a half decades of hip-hop sampling, not to mention a century of Modernism. For the neglected Henry Timrod is just the tantalizing threshold into Dylan’s vast memory palace of echoes.

Besides Timrod, for instance, Modern Times taps into the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, John, and Luke, among others), Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Kokomo Arnold, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Stanley Brothers, Merle Haggard, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and standards popularized by Jeanette MacDonald, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra, as well as vintage folk songs such as “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Frankie and Albert,” and “Gentle Nettie Moore.”

It’s possible, in fact, to see his prior two recordings, Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft,” as rearranging the entire American musical and literary landscape of the past 150 years, except that the sources he adapts aren’t always American or so recent. Please forgive another Homeric (if partial) catalog, but the scale and range of Dylan’s allusive textures are vital to an appreciation of what he’s after on his recent recordings.

On Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft,” Dylan refracts folk, blues, and pop songs created by or associated with Crosby, Sinatra, Charlie Patton, Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell, Doc Boggs, Leroy Carr, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Joe Turner, Wilbert Harrison, the Carter Family, and Gene Austin alongside anonymous traditional tunes and nursery rhymes.

But the revelation is the sly cavalcade of film and literature fragments: W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, assorted film noirs, As You Like It, Othello, Robert Burns, Lewis Carroll, Timrod, Ovid, T.D. Rice’s blackface Otello, Huckleberry Finn, The Aeneid, The Great Gatsby, the Japanese true crime paperback Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Wise Blood. So pervasive and crafty are Dylan’s recastings for “Love and Theft” that I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we learn that every bit of speech on the album—no matter how intimate or Dylanesque—can be tracked back to another song, poem, movie, or novel.

One conventional approach to Dylan’s songwriting references “folk process” (and also, in his case, “blues process”) and recognizes that he’s always acted as a magpie, recovering and transforming borrowed materials, lyrics, tunes, and even film dialogue (notably on his 1985 album Empire Burlesque). Folk process can readily map early Dylan, the associations linking say, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Go ’Way from My Window” with his current variations on traditional blues couplets in his update of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” for Modern Times.

Yet what about Twain, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Confessions of a Yakuza, and Timrod? If those gestures are also folk process, then a folk process pursued with such intensity, scope, audacity, and verve eventually explodes into Modernism. As far back as “Desolation Row,” Dylan sang of “Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them / And fishermen hold flowers.” Dylan’s insistent nods to the past on Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft,” and Modern Times can probably best be apprehended as Modernist collages.

To clarify what I mean by Modernist collages, think of them as verbal echo chambers of harmonizing and clashing reverberations that tend to organize into two types: those collaged texts, like Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s “The Waste Land, ” where we are meant to remark on the discrepant tones and idioms of the original texts bumping up against one another, and those collaged texts, composed by poets as various as Kenneth Fearing, Lorine Niedecker, Frank Bidart, and John Ashbery, that aim for an apparently seamless surface. A conspicuous model of the former is the ending of “The Waste Land”:

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—
O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
            Shantih     shantih      shantih

The following passage by Frank Bidart, from his poem “The Second Hour of the Night,” actually proves as allusive as Eliot’s, nearly every line rearranging elements assembled not only from Ovid, his main source for the Myrrha story, but also from Plotinus and even Eliot. But instead of incessant fragmentation, we experience narrative sweep and urgency:

As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her father

not free not to desire

what draws her forward is neither COMPULSION nor FREEWILL:—

or at least freedom, here choice, is not to be
imagined as action upon

preference: no creature is free to choose what
allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release:

I fulfill it, because I contain it—
it prevails, because it is within me—


it is a heavy burden, setting up longing to enter that
realm to which I am called from within. . . .

Dylan’s songwriting tilts toward the cagier, deflected mode that Bidart is using here. We would scarcely realize we were inside a collage unless someone told us, or unless we abruptly registered a familiar locution. The wonder of the dozen or so snippets that Dylan sifted from Confessions of a Yakuza for “Love and Theft” is how casual and personal they sound dropped into his songs—not one of those songs, of course, remotely about a yakuza, or a gangster of any persuasion.

Some of Dylan’s borrowings operate as allusions in the accustomed sense, urging us back into the wellspring texts. Timrod, I think, works as a citation we’re ultimately intended to notice, though no song depends on that notice. Dylan manifestly is fixated on the American Civil War. In his memoir Chronicles, Volume One, he recounted that during the early 1960s he systematically read every newspaper at the New York Public Library for the years 1855 to 1865. “The age that I was living in didn’t resemble this age,” he wrote, “but it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot. There was a broad spectrum and commonwealth that I was living upon, and the basic psychology of that life was every bit a part of it. If you turned the light towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature. Back there, America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

His 2003 film Masked and Anonymous takes place against the backdrop of another interminable domestic war during an unspecified future. Dylan clearly sees links between the Civil War and America now—and once you consult a historical map of the red and blue states, would you contradict him? The echoes of Timrod help him frame and sustain those links. For Dylan, Modern Times (and this is the joke in his title, along with the reference to the Chaplin movie) are also old times, ancient times. “The age I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but it did. . . .”

Other borrowings, such as the tidbits of yakuza oral history, aren’t so much formal allusions as curios of vernacular speech picked up from reading or listening that shade his songs into something like collective, as against individual, utterances. But here, too, it’s hard not to discern specific designs. On recordings steeped in empire, corruption, masks, male power, and self-delusion, aren’t Tokyo racketeers (or Virgilian ghosts) as apt as Huck Finn, Confederate poets, and Charlie Patton?

Without ever winking, Dylan is inveterately canny and sophisticated about all this, though after a fashion that recalls Laurence Sterne’s celebrated attack on plagiarism in Tristram Shandy, itself plagiarized from The Anatomy of Melancholy. On “Summer Days” from “Love and Theft,” Dylan sings:

She’s looking into my eyes, and she’s a-holding my hand
She looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand,
She says, “You can’t repeat the past,” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you
      can’t? Of course you can.”

His puckish, snaky lines dramatize precisely how one could, in fact, “repeat the past,” since the lyrics reproduce a conversation between Nick and Gatsby from chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby. On “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” from Modern Times, Dylan follows another oblique intimation of Timrod with the confession “I’ve been conjuring up all these long-dead souls from their crumbling tombs.” The quotation marks in the title of “Love and Theft” signal Dylan’s debts to Eric Lott’s academic study Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class; the secondhand title of the CD also specifies his status as a white blues and rock ’n’ roll performer inside an American minstrelsy tradition, as well as his songwriting proclivities (loving stuff enough to filch it).

In a 1996 interview for Newsweek, novelist David Gates asked Dylan what he believed. He replied, “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

Let’s presume that by “songs” Dylan also now must mean poems, such as Henry Timrod’s, and novels, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, as well as traditional folk hymns and blues. His invocation of that expanded “lexicon” might be surprising, and daunting, but it certainly isn’t plagiarism. Who else writes, has ever written, songs like these? Poems, novels, films, songs all partake of a conversation with the great dead—a “conjuring,” as Dylan would say. The embodiment of his conjuring, those conversations with his dead on his recent recordings are among the most daring and original signatures of his art.

Illustration by Tom Bachtell.

Originally Published: October 6, 2006

COMMENTS (31)

On October 11, 2006 at 4:43am Mick Gold wrote:
Well done, Robert Polito. You've produced an excellent account of Dyan's technique - particularly on his last 2 albums. You could hand Confessions of a Yakuza to 100 song-writers and you wouldn't get Love & Theft. You could hand the works of Henry Timrod to 1000 song-writers and you wouldn't get Modern Times.

Mick Gold

On January 5, 2007 at 1:35pm Richard Emanuel wrote:
Artists do not create in a vacuum. None of us
do. The songs we hear, the poems we read,
movies we see, streets we walk are absorbed
into our selves, there to be reworked and
remolded into new forms, shaped by our
individual consciousness - and unconscious.
Whitman wrote about it in Leaves of Grass:

"THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object
he became;
And that object became part of him for the
day, or a certain part of the day, or for many
years, or stretching cycles of years."

What Walt Whitman knew may be even more
true for artists than for the rest of us. It is
certainly true for Bob Dylan, to our everlasting
benefit.

Now, we may talk intelligently about the point
at which one should acknowledge and credit
our inspirations, our sources and our debts. But
in the instance of Modern Times, I feel the
controversey is overblown.

On February 22, 2007 at 9:21am Eric Hoffman wrote:
I was rather shocked when Dylan's use of Timrod became "controversy". I believe this may have originated in part with Dylan's public perception as an "original" songwriter - that generally people have the tendency to take the word "original" a bit too literally. Kudos to Polito, therefore, for reminding us of modernism and hip-hop (how is it possible for anyone to forget?), not to mention Dylan's rather ubiquitous use of various sources, from Ovid to Ma Rainey, all of which is recombined in some mysterious way into new artifacts replete with new meanings; a process that could only be described as, well, artistic.

On March 7, 2007 at 2:29pm Rick Ench wrote:
As a longtime fan of Bob Dylan and a songwriter and lyricist myself, I would like to express my appreciation for Robert Polito's thoughtful and incisive comment's on Dylan's so called "plagiarism". Dylan is no different in this respect from most other folk, rock and blues songwriters who have been recycling phrases and reworking ideas and words patterns from musical predecessors and other written sources for about as long as there have been songs to sing. Ironically, in view of the controversy, Dylan's own original lyrics have both inpired and been copycatted by more aspiring and established songwriters than possibly anyone else in the world over the past 40 plus years. And I would venture to say few of the artists whose lyrics and music have been informed by Dylan's work have given him credit in their liner notes.

On May 4, 2007 at 9:35am Kiki wrote:
That was an excellent read. I've always thought the defining characterstic of Dylan's work (as popular music) is its ability to reward intense study and innumerable listenings.
One of the reasons for that is the endless and varied list of sources that can be found.

On July 21, 2007 at 6:19pm Brad wrote:
The album is called "Love and Theft" and Mr. Dylan stares at us from the cover with haunted eyes that dare us to look deeper into the songs. The next album is called "Modern Times" with a picture of the old city that is new York. Then we are amazed that there is actually a history to rock and blues music that Dylan wants us to learn about. In the end that's what it's all about--in the modern world if there is anything deeper than a shiny-surfaced pop song, it must be evil. How dare Mr. Dylan ask us to think.

On August 25, 2007 at 9:24pm Curmudgeon wrote:
The problem with Dylan's last two records is that they're LAZY. He's cutting up incoherently. He's also ripping off the arrangements of people like Muddy Waters like he has some divine right to do so. You know that bit at the end of Chronicles where Dylan mystifies Robert Johnson and pooh-poohs Dave Van Ronk's lack of enthusiasm for Johnson and Van Ronk's accurate analysis of Johnson's copying of sources? Dylan does this to apologise for his own rip-offs, I think. And the Romanticism that he wraps Johnson up in we are supposed to confer on him now. Yikes. Sorry, Bobby, you're a shadow of your former self, you've shot your voice out and I don't find anything particularly Romantic about you.

On September 16, 2007 at 7:49am Allan Juriansz wrote:
We are all a product of our total experience.
This is mostly unconcious, that is, our
subsequent expressions reflect what has
filtered into our total being. A few of us have
original ideas and are truly gifted. Some of us
are consciuosly able to take advantage of other
peoples original ideas and rework them to
greater heights. If this is done consciously, we
should give them credit. If we do it
unconsciously, we could be forgiven. People
who read widely or think deeply about their
daily experiences usually have a richer source
to draw from when they express themselves. It
is a good idea to enjoy a thing of beauty when
we see it and a flattery to the person(s) who
produced it, no matter how far back that has to
apply.

On November 24, 2007 at 4:15pm charles washburn wrote:
this is not a comment but a request for help. I heard a poem read over the radio by garrison keillor. I only caught part of it, and jotted down the last line. it read: "come and make no diference with me." can you tell me the name of the poem, and the author's name, and where I might find it? Thank you.

On January 30, 2008 at 12:15am Gary Pereira wrote:
Thank you Robert for this most insightful discussion of Dylan's recent work. What a tragedy it is that neither Dylan's music, nor his musical influences, get airplay or garner much cultural awareness. I welcome any discoveries of influences on his work - so that I can go out and read or listen to them myself. I laugh whenever the motivation for such commentary involves accusations of theft. The emotional depth of this work is a product of extraordinary creativity. If phrases can be found elsewhere, it only underscores the universality of the human condition, and the expressiveness and flexibility of language. 'Modern Times' is helping me right now to live more humanely through very trying times, both personal and extrapersonal. I am happy this evening to have discovered, through a wikipedia entry on this music, the poetry of Timrod. My thanks to anyone who discovers or explores Dylan's influences, since they are always worth exploring for oneself.

On April 2, 2008 at 6:19pm Herb wrote:
It is uncontested by Bob Dylan and or Bob Dylan's law firm Manatt,

Phelps & Phillips formerly (Parcher Hayes & Snyder) and Gibson Dunn &

Crutcher that Bob Dylan and people in Bob Dylan's entourage have

solicited James Damiano's songs and music for over ten years.

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.

http://www.geocities.com/proposal112000/James_Damiano.html

On April 2, 2008 at 6:23pm Bob F. wrote:

Bob Dylan stole "Blowin In The Wind" ?

http://www.geocities.com/proposal112000/James_Damiano.html

On June 4, 2008 at 2:17am Curmudgeon wrote:
Making satirical copyright infringement allegations is a weak attempt to deflect attention from the drop in the quality of Dylan's writing. Cutting and pasting random works and substantially re-working traditional material are not equivalent. No one is going to contest Dylan's talent or technique as a young man. But, sadly, he's been running on fumes for a long time and his worshippers are so starry-eyed that they can't see the truth about his work as it exists today. I say this with sadness not real malice or faked malice like Damiano's

On June 26, 2008 at 8:48am LINDA SUE GRIMES wrote:
for charles washburn, who wrote: "this is not a comment but a request for help. I heard a poem read over the radio by garrison keillor. I only caught part of it, and jotted down the last line. it read: "come and make no diference with me." can you tell me the name of the poem, and the author's name, and where I might find it?"

Stephen Cushman's Beside the Point":

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/11/16

On August 24, 2008 at 6:47pm Jake wrote:
"Cutting and pasting random works and

substantially re-working traditional

material are not equivalent."

1. The works are not random. If you

read just a bit above your comment,

you'll find an article which illustrates the

meanings/intentions of Dylan's process.

2. This "reworking of traditional

material" you speak of so

contemptuously, is the very basis on

which American roots music is based.

Have you NO Idea how fast this cultural

landscape is? Read Dylan's liner notes

for his 'World Gone Wrong' album.

That's a FRACTION of his inspiration.

This tradition (one might call it a natural

process) goes for Blues, Bluegrass,

Country, Folk and Jazz. Asserting that

Dylan is 'running on fumes' is like

walking up to John Coltrane after

performing 'My Favorite Things' and

telling him that he was weak and

uninspired (at which point the rest of

the audience would likely lynch you).

On September 1, 2008 at 11:09pm Curmudgeon wrote:
Hi Jake. Take a deep breath, man--you may not know it, but we're on the same side. First, I didn't speak "contemptuously" of reworking traditional material. Dylan did it brilliantly many times in his early career. The difference between then and now is that he was making a more substantial contribution to the works he was using. For example, "Blowing in the Wind" is a far cry from "No More Auction Block," but the latter song is the source. "The Chimes of Freedom" is a far cry from "The Chimes of Trinity," but the former is the source. I would not accuse him of laziness for either of those songs. Dylan worked well (and HARD, though he didn't realize it because he was so good) in those days. Second, I don't take the essay above our comments as a coherent statement from Bob Dylan as to why he has chosen the particular works he has chosen to string together on _Modern Times_. Dylan is a big boy; he can (and should) speak for himself on such issues. It's sad that he leaves it to attendants at his court to speak for him. Third, please don't try to deflect attention from the issue at hand by invoking Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," a piece that a jazz genius played myriad different ways as his style evolved through the sixties. Coltrane worked and practiced to the point of exhaustion every day. His technique was impeccable and even jazz critics who didn't like his style would not question his sincerity or ability. Not so with Dylan. Dylan has put together random lyrics that you or I could have put together but nobody would project genius onto us because we don't have built-in Bob Dylan masks. I know that the man is capable of better and I care about his work enough to want to kick him in the butt to make him try harder. Unfortunately, he has a lot of playground defenders who don't want to hear of it.

On September 16, 2008 at 9:55pm Joe the playground defender wrote:
"His technique was impeccable and even jazz critics who didn't like his style would not question his sincerity or ability. Not so with Dylan."

Now I don't know how easier it is to discern sincerity or ability in jazz from some poser with weak sauce but in writing it can be a difficult task. I agree that Jake comparing Dylan with Coltrane is a bit of a stretch and I also know that thinking someone "inspired" is about as subjective as thinking one to be "sincere".

"Dylan has put together random lyrics that you or I could have put together..."

You don't have to like his new stuff (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times) nor do you have to entertain any thoughts about its talent or authenticity which is fine. I guess I am always flummoxed when I find people that really don't like his newer work. It's not just good, it's his best. This is my opinion and I really think you could defend the work from the 60's or 70's as his best.

The random lyrics you speak of could be referring to these last albums, or you could apply that same subjective verdict to his earlier songs like "Desolation Row". Talent is subjective, but only to an extent; maybe it's just not the stuff you wanna listen to right now but it definitely isn't just reworked drivel that he's just throwing out there to please the ever-satisfied crowd. I am reminded of an Emily Dickinson quote describing poetry that pretty much sums up how I feel about Dylan :"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

On September 20, 2008 at 3:20am Curmudgeon wrote:
If all I were talking about (as you seem to be) were a subjective response to the music, then, yes, we'd have nothing to persuade each other about or refute--then we might as well be talking about KISS or even KISS tribute bands. (Following that thread, however, I'd argue Bob Dylan has become kind of like those guys who are wearing Ace Frehley's and Peter Criss's make-up and touring with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. He's got his Bob Dylan mask, but Bob Dylan is not really there. What was once a joke that he made has become very sadly true.)

I've never been a KISS fan and I think talking about such a ridiculous mass marketing phenomenon is a horrible waste of time.

I'm considering something more worth talking about: A talented human being, Bob Dylan, seems to have lost faith in his imagination. He doesn't seem inclined to contribute as much to his own songs anymore. He's complacently putting out albums forged not in the magical workshop of his mind, but in a cold laboratory of disparate (desperate also?) incoherent paraphrase. I have neither the time nor inclination to do any quantitative analysis of his earlier work versus his newer work, but my impression, formed through years of listening to his music, is that there is less of Bob Dylan's creative intelligence in his recent songs, and I think this is a sad situation for popular music. This is not simply my subjective impression--I'm talking about the quantity of words and musical ideas he contributes to his own work. I realize all artists are not perfectly original: I need no lecture about that as a refutation. What is important for me to get across here is that I am talking about something material, not simply a solipsistic response to noises and words.

Furthermore, I believe Dylan's writing problems are partly the result of the significant portion of his audience that is hypnotized by his mystique. He can satisfy them with little effort, so he does so. He's become like the late Elvis. Although Dylan's audience hasn't killed him, it does seem to have killed his spirit.

On October 17, 2008 at 6:42pm AndoDoug wrote:
Recently revealed: In the minstrel sketch Box and Cox: In One Act by Edwin Byron Christy, published in 1856, the character Mr. Box states, "So if you's no dejections, I'll just remark dat your presence is obnoxious to me — I wants to go to bed."

The following line also appears, "I've had too much of your company already. Vamose !"

Dylanites will recognize both lines (Your presence is obnoxioius to me; I've had too much of your company) from the aforementioned Love and Theft's opener, 'Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum'.

On October 19, 2008 at 5:39pm Curmudgeon wrote:
This is INTERESTING! Why doesn't the man comment on what he thinks he's doing? Why does he want to leave this as a silly detective game where people find things buried in the backyard? It's a waste of everybody's time. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he has something of value to say, but it's not being said--say it, Bobby, people are listening.

On May 9, 2009 at 1:24am LeAnn wrote:
To quote Bono:
"every poet is a thief"

On July 13, 2009 at 1:14am James Damiano wrote:
Someday maybe
You'll be able
To Tell
The Greatest story
Say the greatest line
Give the greatest
Performance
Find the greatest
find

Damiano 03

Dedicated to Curmudgeon

On November 17, 2009 at 10:44am Larry wrote:

On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009, I attended a roundtable on Bob Dylan at the Philoctetes Center in New York City, called, "The Inventions of Bob Dylan." The main panelists, both distinguished university professors, were Christopher Ricks, author of "Dylan's Visions of Sin;" and Sean Wilentz, author of the forthcoming, "Bob Dylan in America." The roundtable was taped and should be appearing on the Philoctetes website soon. Anyway, I wonder why no one ever mentions Marianne Moore as another modernist poet who 'borrowed' 'turns of phrase' from a variety of sources, and incorporated them, often seamlessly, into her poems. Even the Japanese haiku poet, Basho, in several of his haiku, out of 17 Japanese sound-syllables, sometimes as many as 14 of those sound-syllables would consist of direct quoting from a Japanese Noh play. Some other of his haiku were pared-down reworkings of classic Chinese poems. Literary 'borrowing' is not a unique or even rare phenomenon.

On January 18, 2010 at 4:07am GUMBO wrote:
This was a near perfect article which made
you think until the last paragraph,when the
author chose a side. Bobbing through
it,you,yourself had Dickenson's "top of your
head taken off". Accruing someone else's
personality as your own,plaigerism is
amongst the most crippling of sins. The
initiation of one's demise begins with lying
to cover one's tracks(Dr.Gene Scott).

On January 21, 2010 at 12:03pm Juan wrote:
I think it is as easy as picturing this.
Your job is to play music. You read a lot of stuff. You have a talent for putting all those thoughts that float in your head down on songs. Why not?

Turns out people try to analyze and deconstruct your whole mental process and talk about you with either love or hate. So what?

You either sit in your house and wait for death to come or you keep doing stuff.

On May 11, 2010 at 9:14pm burt shulman wrote:

Curmudgeon, if you're still reading this site, please re-read Polito. I'm a writer myself, and I've struggled a bit with Dylan's recent "appropriations" which run through Chronicles as well as many of the songs. But what I find convincing about all of this is how much I like listening to recent Dylan, particularly Love and Theft -- how utterly fascinating all of it is, including the music itself which is quite overtly in some sort of aural dialog with the music of the past. Dylan has always been, at his best, a deeply intuitive artist. During his miraculous run from around '62 through around '68 he wrote songs in cabs, diners, hotel rooms -- some of the greatest songs we have. He re-worked them, but he worked from the gut. "Like a Rolling Stone" -- did he plagiarize the title? It's more of a mystery how he was able to write such an astoundingly beautiful, timeless song using the already over-used blues image. Muddy Waters (who stole it from someone else no doubt -- actually, "A rolling stone gathers no moss" I suppose); The Rolling Stones; I mean in 1965 he used as his central image one of the arguably most hackneyed images in blues to create a work of genius. That's the real point, here. If you actually believe that any one of us could take the sources he draws from and turn out work like the work on Love and Theft, then you're essentially making the argument made by haters of Jackson Pollock: my 5 year old daughter could do better than that. Well, maybe so, but if so I'd love to meet her because she's an astounding genius. Dylan works from the depths; the man has been studying and synthesizing work from all genres for 50 years. Elvis Presley may have written 5 songs? Maybe? And I have no idea what they were. But listen to the Sun Sessions and tell me (if you truly have a sensitivity to music and the human voice) tell me "Mystery Train" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" and the first one, "That's All Right, Mama" aren't timeless and don't take the top of your head off (thank you again, Ms. Dickinson). With Dylan it's always been the whole package: the voice, the tunes, the lyrics, the attitude -- the performance. Joni Mitchell recently attacked him (out of jealousy, it would seem, which is insane because Jonis is a great master herself) but again she does not really get what he's up to. Polito does. If Dylan appended to each album: "With thanks to..." we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. Yet the songs themselves -- many of them -- tell you they're partially appropriated. His more recent work strings together arresting phrases and images that sometimes feel random, but in sum add up to a whole far greater than the sum of their parts. G.B. Shaw wrote a one-act play (very obscure) called "The Dark Lady" I believe in which he presents Shakespeare (unnamed, I believe, but unmistakable) as a kind of smarmy little guy who ran around London with a notebook, eavesdropping and writing down the best lines he heard uttered by other people, which then showed up in his plays. And I don't doubt it. So if you or I ran around doing that would one of us write a play on the order of King Lear? Charles Ives "stole" bits from all over the place. Aaron Copland. For god's sake, George Gershwin. And how about all the stories, novels and plays that have recycled the same basic plot outlines for millennia? William Burroughs and his cut-ups, Duchamp and his ready-mades -- there was satire in play, certainly, and there's satire in play with Dylan as well. "Blind Willie McTell"'s melody is a naked steal of "St. James Infirmary" -- but it's a wonder of a song, a true cry from the heart. And the analogy to Coltrane, or Miles Davis, or Louis Armstrong DOES fit. Who gets credit for Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"? Richard Rodgers? Sure, give him some credit, he wrote a lovely tune. But he didn't write what Coltrane formed from it. Maybe Rodgers hated Coltrane's version; Cole Porter allegedly hated Sinatra's version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- but name one other version of that song that keeps the song more current, more alive, than Sinatra's? These are transformations. Dylan's project these days, if we can call it that, seems to be to dig ever more deeply into the song catalog -- and books and movies and poetry -- and re-shape what he finds into something new. Make it new -- the cry of the modernist. Call Dylan a post-modernist, or a post-post-modernist. It wouldn't shock me if he enjoys all the yammering about his plagiarism. And I'm sure it probably hurts him at the same time. Mr. Curmudgeon, the guy has written many forgettable songs over the years, and you know why I'd say that is? He wrote them when he was trying to be "original". Those are the songs he wrote when he'd lost his gut-level connection with his instinct, with the things that move him. Over the hill? Shot his wad? Listen -- really listen -- to Love and Theft. Or Time Out of Mind; credit some of the latter to Daniel Lanois, but that is deep, deep music Dylan's singing. The mood on Time Out of Mind is, well, timeless. And very dark -- poised over the abyss we're all poised over. Dylan once said "People don't understand that mystery is a fact, and historical fact." What he meant was, let's get serious, folks. We're all drenched in mystery; we embody the central mystery of this universe: simply by being alive. How did we come to be here? Explain that by religion, or explain it by poetry. My point is the man is still trying to get under that -- and he's letting us listen in to his attempts. Plagiarism? Nah. Plagiarism is imitation that adds nothing. Call it transmutation. Oh -- last thing. Go read Robert Lowell's "Imitations." Or any great poet's translations of another great poet. The results are new poems; which is why many times they'll subtitle them "after Lorca" or "after Basho". So Dylan doesn't subtitle his work; if he did the subtitles would be longer than the songs. Listen to "Brownsville Girl" which he wrote with Sam Shepard. One of his really great songs, written at a time when he was not producing a lot of great work. Or didn't seem to be at the time. It's a riff on The Gunfighter, I think it is, one of Gregory Peck's first movies (and a great one). The song is at least as good as the movie -- allusive, indirect, self-referential. His recent songs are almost all internal dialogs -- the songs in a way talk to themselves, the bits of "stolen" language come together to form new, almost dada-ist or surreal kinds of work. The man is both a deep traditionalist and a revolutionary, so don't expect him to give you work that doesn't challenge your expectations about what a song is "supposed" to be! After all he's created, you have to face the fact that the guy is way ahead of all of us. Do you truly think Love and Theft is lazy???? Oh dear lord. Or that Dylan is lazy???? Open your mind, and then listen, and if you don't get what he's doing give him the benefit of the doubt. If any artist of the past 50 years has earned that trust from us, he has. When he's gone, 30 years or so from now, the work you're dismissing will be mixed in with all his other work and its own power will be more obvious. No argument -- the stuff from the '60's is work of genius. But I'm beginning to suspect that much of the recent stuff is too. Different, more subtle -- but just as original, just as unique, and just as confounding to our expectations. This is what the man does -- he makes things new! He doesn't write "Visions of Johanna" now because he already wrote it.

On May 11, 2010 at 9:19pm burt shulman wrote:

And by the way -- I assume the other reason he doesn't write "Visions of Johanna" anymore is because he can't. These days he writes what he can write these days. And appropriates -- or steals -- as he chooses to, and offends us as he will. Just as he always has. And that's as much the point as anything; he loves to challenge himself, the forms he works in, and us (including Joni Mitchell!). The truth, if it exists, changes every moment, and Dylan intuitively works with that. At least that's how I see him -- a true, great, endlessly inventive artist who defies our expectations and even infuriates us as he explores the limits.

On January 28, 2011 at 9:05pm Richard Clark wrote:
The Stealingof James Damiano's Songs by Bob Dylan

http://jamesdamiano.yolasite.com/

On September 12, 2012 at 4:31pm Jim Blake wrote:
to quote Picasso "Of course I steal -I steal from
everyone. I try not to steal from myself" Like Frank
Lloyd Wright, Picasso, LeCorbusier, Bartok, Ictinus,
Callicrates and Homer before him, Bob Dylan is a
consummate magpie. For a very readable examination of
this creative process read Harold Bloom's seminal work
on thievery / invention among the Romantic poets "The
Anxiety of Influence" As for Bob Dylan's most recent
work - it is among my all-time favorite Dylan work
("It's All Good") and I was there at the beginning as my
older sister had all of his eartly albums and played
them incessantly.

On November 5, 2013 at 3:24am hans altena wrote:
Go dismiss James Joyce who said that for centuries
people would be digging into his work trying to find
where it came from (and I add, where it would go to,
what it would mean). A work of art which is composed out
of what is already there, by a mind that works
intuitive, and makes it into something new, gives you
more than just an original work which connects with
nothing but the mind of the creator (such as is the case
with Joni's poetry sadly, great as she is, though her
music luckily is interconnected with the whole pantheon
of styles and melodies). And please don't ask for
explainations and references lazy mister Jones, go smell
the ground, explore that vast territory of inspiration
made real. Dylan is not tinkering with poetry, he is
into the magic which for him is historical truth, and he
dep[icts it with all those notions he gets from songs
and stories told by visionaries and tramps alike, even
ordinary people. Like Joyce said: the sounds heard in
the street. It's there for the artist to turn it into...
go answer for yourself... Thanks for this great article.
And let the Damiano's of this world go and create
something new instead of fighting battles they can't win
in court.

On November 5, 2013 at 6:20am Peter Bright wrote:
Thanks for this very interesting essay Robert. For some
time I have wondered whether Bob was referring to his
art of anchoring his work within the culture and
literature of others in the following verse from "Ain't
talkin'":

All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

Dylan, it strikes me, has developed a historically
informed art form, which brings past and present
together. He is singularly adept at doing this - and it
is a wonder to behold...

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 Robert  Polito

Biography

Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito became the second president of the Poetry Foundation in July 2013.

Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood & God (2009) and Doubles (1995). His poetry blends narrative and lyric impulses, drawing on both American pop culture and literary . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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