Bob Dylan and Plagiarism

To Catch a Master Thief

A tired adage states that: “talent borrows but genius steals.” This has certainly been true of the folk tradition in which homage and the borrowing of ideas has always been an integral part. Folk musicians – most notably Bob Dylan, have always sprinkled their work takings from the tradition, giving their work added depth and imbuing it with a sense of timelessness. Dylan’s work has varied in quality and in subject matter over-time, but has remained firmly rooted within this folk tradition, borrowing the odd-melody here or phrase there, but often creating new work, within new contexts that has often amounted to more than the sum of its parts. Somewhere along the line, and most evident in his album Modern Times and his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, Bob Dylan appears to have crossed a line and has resorted to plagiarism.

It can be said that the work of a great artist should be beyond seemingly petty nit-picking, however, when the work of a great artist is no longer truly his own, does that person ceases to be a great artist? It can be argued that what Dylan is now doing – namely the naked theft of the work of others – has reduced him in stature. Intellectual and artistic honesty remain some of the most important features within a free society. It is taken as natural that someone should be recognized for the excellence of their work and reap whatever benefits producing said work rewards. Similarly, the naked theft of the work of others, in whole or in part, is to be scorned. It is dishonest in that it represents not only intellectual dishonesty, but also intellectual laziness. Genuine insight and especially the sort of word-craft that alight the senses are difficult to produce with regularity and require not only-talent, but continual work and refinement of craft. It, in the end, plagiarism is so immoral because it is a form of cheating – hence the vitriol and anger normally directed towards plagiarists upon the discovery of their malfeasance. We all like to think that when someone produces a piece of work, it is their ideas – or at least their perceptions or spin on ideas – that are being represented. Plagiarism’s vulgarity stems from the idea that, in accepting work falsely passed off as one’s own, it challenges our collective integrity.

The brilliance of much of Dylan’s early work is beyond dispute – here was someone who was able to make-up for his utter lack of musicianship through brilliance as a word-smith and managed to root his lyrics deeply in a tradition that added delicious context to his work. Albums such as Bringing It All Back Home and later, Blood on the Tracks featured brilliant manipulation of folk traditions to produce songs of strong social and personal resonance. He was also a sharp social critic, pointing towards the ills of society in the finest folk tradition with songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” and “Hurricane”. His mastery of word-play was absolute and hinted towards numerous literary and poetic traditions more so than towards musical ones. His songs spoke to both the spirit of the times and Dylan (and the artistic persona he created for himself). Dylan’s tendency towards self-mythology further strengthened his work by casting him as all the more part of a grand tradition. He became a voice of the ages, not simply of a generation. This bred obsessive, often humorless followers who hung upon Dylan’s every word. Despite this, his muse burned bright, and even his self-consciously ‘bad’ albums, notably – to throw the obsessive’s off the scent – including the much reviled Self-Portrait brimmed with ideas and intelligence.

Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s – while Dylan was at the height of a drunken depression that eventually saw him ‘save’ himself by becoming a ‘born-again’ Christian, and eventual seeming acquiescent return to Judaism, his muse seems to have dried up. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, Dylan produced a series of poorly received records bearing little resemblance to his old work. The music he produced on albums such as Infidels and Saved included everything from inane Zionist propaganda (“Neighborhood Bully”) to simplistic retellings of Biblical creation stories (“God Gave Names To All The Animals”). While this period saw the odd splash of the old genius (notably the moving “Dark Eyes” on the not so moving Empire Burlesque and the funny though admittedly 80s sounding “Brownsville Girl” on Knocked Out Loaded –considered by many to be Dylan’s worst record) something appeared to be missing.

Dylan appears to have briefly experimented with writing ‘list songs’, where a theme is repeated down a list (i.e. “Everything’s Broken” and “Most of the Time”) to some affect on 1989’s Oh Mercy, which received positive reviews and was heralded as something of a come-back, but this gimmick had already begun to wear thin on 1990’s Under the Red Sky, which was critically savaged.

Dylan then defied many of his critics by recording two solo albums in rapid succession of old folk and blues standards. Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong were remarkable in that they seemed to show Dylan both re-immersing himself in the material that had inspired him in the early 60s, but also in that his musicianship on the albums appeared to be far more impressive than anything he had previously, or would thereafter, produce. This was followed-up by 1997’s intelligent, though slightly morbid – especially in light of Dylan’s subsequent near-fatal heart infection that he was treated for around the time the album came out – Time Out of Mind.

Dylan remained inactive until 2001 when he released “Love and Theft”- considered by many to be the best album Dylan had produced in decades and receiving a Five-Star review in Rolling Stone, the first of which the magazine had awarded in over a decade. The album’s September 11th release date further cemented the importance of the album as many of Dylan’s lyrics on the record– largely about loss and renewal – seemed to speak to the immediacy of the tragedy.

“Love and Theft” was also notable as being the first of Dylan’s albums in some time where clear literary-lifting was identified. The New York Times1 and San Francisco Chronicle identified several lines that Dylan had taken verbatim from the English language translation of Dr. Junichi Saga’s 1991 Japanese gangster memoir, Confessions of a Yakuza. These lines included: “my old man was like some kind of feudal lord”, “why don’t you shove off if it bothers you so much”, “my uncle did a lot of nice things for me and I won’t forget him”, and “What’s the use if you can’t stand up to some old businessman?”. While the New York Times article argued that what Dylan did was closer to “cultural collage” than to plagiarism the publication asked more questions with the release of 2006’s Modern Times.2

Modern Times was notable in that it saw Dylan make considerable use of the poems of Confederate Poet Henry Timrod as lyrical fodder. Many of Dylan’s lyrical constructions and exact phrasings were shown to be direct borrows from Timrod, as well as from other sources including the Ovid. Further, the songs seemed to lack focus and felt as though they were simply assembled from snippets of various sources rather than carrying the crisper narratives that characterized Dylan’s earlier work.

The liner notes carried no notation or footnotes on sources. Indeed, the songs were credited as “Words and music by Bob Dylan” a point that was particularly glaring as almost every single song on the album was a reworking of an old blues, jazz or R & B number. For example, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was little more than the addendum of some new lyrics to the Muddy Waters’ arrangement of the blues standard of the same name, “Beyond the Horizon” was identical musically and similar lyrically to “Red Sails In The Sunset”, “When the Deal Goes Down” was musically identical to the Bing Crosby hit “Where The Blue of the Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)”, “Thunder on the Mountain” and “When the Levee Breaks” were borrowed Memphis Minnie numbers, “Ain’t Talkin’” a remake of the Stanley Brothers song “River of Regret” and so on. While some of this can be thought of Dylan’s use of the folk tradition, the decision to credit the songs both lyrically and musically to himself is telling. In light of Dylan’s satellite radio program, it is strange that Dylan would not opt to credit this music to its writers, some of whom are still alive if not living in obscurity and likely could stand to earn royalties from their work following it’s reuse.

More telling however, is Dylan’s outright theft of material in writing his memoir Chronicles. The book appears to be a cleverly written account of various points in Dylan’s life, including his initial arrival on the Greenwich Village folk circuit circa 1961, where he would go on to become a fixture and shortly thereafter make his name to his time in New Orleans in the late 80s when he recorded Oh Mercy. Critics were unanimous in praising Dylan for his recapturing much of the feel of the era as well as his clever turns of phrase. The problem was, many of these turns of phrase were pilfered from sources as diverse as the March 31, 1961 issue of Time magazine to novels by Jack London, Sax Roehmer and R.L. Stevenson among others.

Much of this information was turned up by posters on Bob Dylan fan forums rather than through mainstream media sources. The discovery of the below quoted passages from Time should all be attributed to Scott Warmuth posting as ‘scottw’ on the Expecting Rain forum, who was able to find them through the use of Google books.3 While Warmuth turned up a multitude of passages in Time that were re-used, with minor changes in Chronicles, I will only reprint four here which I feel are particularly telling ones:

Chronicles, p. 88:

Some women wanted to be called ‘a woman’ when they reached twenty-one. Some sales girls, or women, didn’t want to be referred to as ‘salesladies.’ In churches, too, things were shaking up. Some white ministers didn’t want to be labeled ‘the Reverend.’ They wanted to be called just plain ‘Reverend.’

Time, Friday, Mar. 31, 1961: “The Press: The Reporter’s Guide”

The Los Angeles Times, concluding that all women aren’t ladies, ungallantly applies its conclusion: ‘A salesgirl or a saleswoman is not a saleslady, and a washerwoman is not a washlady, so a scrubwoman cannot be a scrublady… …In the Memphis Commercial Appeal if a minister is white, he is ‘the Rev.,’ if Negro he is simply ‘Rev.’

Chronicles, p. 88:

Reputable psychiatrists were saying that some of these people who claimed to be so against nuclear testing are secular last judgment types — that if nuclear bombs are banned, it would deprive them of their highly comforting sense of doom.

Time, Friday, Mar. 31, 1961: “The Anatomy of Angst”

“For many Bomb worriers, it seems to be a true phobia, a kind of secular substitute for the Last Judgment, and a truly effective nuclear ban would undoubtedly deprive them of a highly comforting sense of doom.”

Chronicles, p. 90:

The dominant myth of the day seemed to be that anybody could do anything, even go to the moon. You could do whatever you wanted — in the ads and in the articles, ignore your limitations, defy them. If you were an indecisive person, you could become a leader and wear lederhosen. If you were a housewife, you could become a glamour girl with rhinestone sunglasses. Are you slow witted? No worries — you can be an intellectual genius.

Time, Friday, Mar. 31, 1961: “The Anatomy of Angst”

This leads to a kind of compulsory freedom that encourages people not only to ignore their limitations but to defy them: the dominant myth is that the old can grow young, the indecisive can become leaders of men. The housewives can become glamour girls, the glamour girls can become actresses, the slow-witted can become intellectuals.

Chronicles, p. 102:

“I don’t eat something that’s one third rat, one third cat and one third dog. It just doesn’t taste right.”

Time, Friday, Mar. 31, 1961: “Races: Recruits Behind Bars”

When pork appears on prison menus, Muslims disdain it… …— One of Elijah’s more fanciful doctrines: the white man, especially the Jew, keeps the black man weakened by selling him the flesh of swine… …The pig contains 999 specific germs, is actually one-third cat, one-third rat and one-third dog.

The issues seen here are further compounded by further revelations of Dylan’s borrowing, highlighted by Edward M. Cook on his Ralph the Sacred River blog.4

Chronicles, p. 167: Below are several passages from the dozens turned up by Cook:

“I cast an embracing glance over the primordial landscape…”

Jack London, Children of the Frost, p. 10:

“Rum meeting place, though,” he added, casting an embracing glance over the primordial landscape …

Chronicles, p. 102: Dylan’s description of his friend Ray’s girl, Chloe Kiel:

“She was cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper — always hit the nail on the head. I don’t know how much weed she smoked, but a lot.”

Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues, p. 167 :

“Baby this that powerful man with that good grass that’ll make you tip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she’s a solid viper.”

Chronicles, p. 63:
“He didn’t need to say much—you knew he had been through a lot, achieved some great deed, praiseworthy and meritorious, yet unspoken about it.”

Jack London, White Fang, p. 298:
“He carried himself with pride, as though, forsooth, he had achieved a deed praiseworthy and meritorious.”

Chronicles, p. 127:
“I bought a red flower for my wife, one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.”

R. L. Stevenson, Providence and the Guitar, Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, p. 203:

As Leon looked at her, in her low-bodied maroon dress, with her arms bare to the shoulder, and a red flower set provocatively in her corset, he repeated to himself for the many hundredth time that she was one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women.

The borrowings discovered there garnered a further response from Warmuth on Expecting Rain who turned up dozens of more cases of direct literary theft from Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe’s Really the Blues:

Chronicles, p. 103:
“Maybe someday your name will get around the country like wildfire,” she’d say. “If you ever get a couple of hundred bucks, buy me something.”

Really The Blues, p. 241:

I never tried to make a real business out of the gauge, but the demand for it just sprang up by itself, and even after giving the other guys their cut I always had a couple of hundred bucks come the end of the week. I was able to take care of Bonnie and her kid real good, with some new furniture in the house, plenty of clothes, and everything else they needed. My name was getting around the country like wildfire.

Chronicles, p. 47:

“The kind of people who come from out of nowhere and go right back into it — a pistol-packing rabbi, a snaggle-toothed girl with a big crucifix between her breasts – all kinds of characters looking for the inner heat.”

Really The Blues, p. 6:

“I found myself running with a literary ex-pug, a pistol-packing rabbi, and a peewee jockey whose onliest riding crop was a stick of marihuana.”

Really The Blues, p. 203:

“These two fly chicks got up on their high-horse when we quizzed them about it – one insisted she was pure Spanish, and sported a crucifix right over her breastworks to prove it…”

Really The Blues, p. 210:

“He had razor legs, snaggle teeth and dribble lips…”

Chronicles, p. 47:

“A frantic atmosphere – all kinds of characters talking fast, moving fast – some debonair, some rakish.”

Really The Blues, p. 212:

“…a light gray felt for me with the brim turned down on one side, kind of debonair and rakish.”

Also noted are several lifted passages from James M. Volo’s Daily Life in Civil War America and several additional passages from other works including ones by Mark Twain, Marcel Proust and various by Jack London, including The Call of the Wild.

Warmuth has written himself about many of these uncovered passages and Dylan’s method of work, noting in his piece “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1” published in the New Haven Review.5

Sometimes what Dylan has done with material from other sources is witty, crafty, and sly. Other times it’s just sloppy. For instance, he works in some delicate touches where he recalls his meeting with the poet Archibald MacLeish, incorporating phrases from MacLeish’s poem “Conquistador.” In the same passage, though, many remarks that Dylan claims MacLeish made in conversation are lifted from MacLeish’s introduction to The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, where Sandburg’s own “Notes for a Preface” also appears. Dylan seems to have conflated the two, perhaps flipping pages and not realizing that MacLeish’s words have ended and Sandburg’s have begun, with the result that the “conversation” with MacLeish becomes a bizarre mix of the voices of both MacLeish and Sandburg.

In identifying Dylan’s tendency throughout the book and then rewrite these stories as anecdotes about himself he further notes:

Of Johnny Cash, for example, Dylan writes, “Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.” Almost every word there comes from London’s story “The Son of the Wolf,” cut, pasted, recast.

Warmuth eventually concludes that what is interesting about Chronicles is the huge volume of code seemingly within the book – the ‘invisible second book beneath its surface and how Dylan uses this multitude of pilfered influences to create a new persona for himself, and has come to view Dylan’s borrowings as enriching to the overall work.

While Dylan is a trickster and much of his persona is quite contrived from external sources, this use of material appears to go well beyond the norms of borrowing or trickery. Indeed, there is a notion of fair-use, however, many of the contexts used by Dylan are identical to those in the original use for which Dylan has borrowed and he goes further in failing to provide any footnotes, notation or any reference to the borrowed materials anywhere in Chronicles.

This then, is a quite sophisticated form of plagiarism in which Dylan actively relied most heavily on obscure materials most likely to avoid being caught. This leads credence to Warmuth’s cryptography theory. With the hundreds of passages already noted as lifted, it is hard to say how much of the book Dylan actually wrote. Dylan’s self mythology has always involved the appropriation of the mythologies of others, however, in this case, he appears to have done so with minimal refinement, simply taking the printed anecdotes and passages of others and applying them to himself. While this is, in many ways brilliant in some way, it fails to answer the question as to whether it is ethical.

Many will argue that as a product of the folk tradition, these distinctions should not trouble Dylan. Of the folk tradition, half the reason it works the way it does, with musicians actively borrowing from one another is because everyone, within the context of a folk scene, is familiar with the same body of work, and thus would be able to recognize ‘borrowed’ material is done so with a nod and a wink. Secondly, social change, rather than commercial remuneration was clearly the reason for many folk songs and thus copyright becomes immaterial.

With the Dylan of present, neither of these are the case. Dylan’s audience is overwhelmingly composed of baby-boomers, reared on rock music and who are unlikely to know many of the songs that Dylan is pilfering. This can be taken even farther with the memoir, in which very few people are capable of remembering the passages borrowed, and no one is expected to remember the contents of antiquated issues of Time magazines. Bob Dylan also does not simply represent ‘Bob Dylan’ rather he represents a multimillion-dollar empire. The economics of each new release are likely closely considered and Dylan has not been politically active for decades. Thus, his plagiarism involves him profiting enormously from the work of others.

Further, the argument that Dylan does not comprehend copyright, intellectual property or is somehow beyond that is also specious. Dylan has himself been ruthless in pursuing his own copyright claims. He famously sued the group Hootie and the Blowfish for their use of the phrase “Tangled up in Blue” and some lines from the song “Idiot Wind” in their song “Only Want To Be With You” – despite the Blowfish song being clearly written as a tribute to Dylan, stating: “Put on a little Dylan” immediately before delivering the offending lines. The eventual settlement was said to run to several million dollars in Dylan’s favor.

Dylan is also no stranger to controversy regarding his work. An 11-year, still-unresolved lawsuit filed against him by songwriter James Damiano is particularly telling. Damiano alleges that Dylan, quite ironically given the title, plagiarized the song “Dignity” from Damiano. Damiano had repeatedly met Dylan and submitted songs to Dylan’s parent label CBS. This is especially telling as “Dignity” was Dylan’s only ‘hit’ record of the 1990s and seems quite different from much of Dylan’s earlier work or other work that he was producing during that period. The direct song lyric comparisons given in the case appear to hold to Damiano’s version of events, despite reports of Damiano’s apparent erratic behavior and his being held in contempt of court.

Perhaps a strong precedent is the case of disgraced historian Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose was found to have placed quotation marks in his book about World War II airmen, The Wild Blue, identically to passages in Thomas Childers Wings of Morning. The misuse of quotations was repeated throughout the work. While in this case, Ambrose’s citation was correct, it was his failure to acknowledge the second hand source from which he had gleaned the material that led to allegations, (arguably rightfully) of plagiarism. With Bob Dylan, this is not even the case. Dylan does not acknowledge any of the multitudes of materials.

This is also similar to the recent case of (then) Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan who in 2006 had been found to plagiarize several passages in her debut novel with only minor variations. In both cases, the accused writer was publicly disgraced and in the case of Ambrose, questions were posed about much of his previous work (which unearthed that he had falsified most of the first hand sources that composed his Eisenhower biography).

Whether one feels that Dylan is guilty of plagiarism or of some sort of clever game of literary cryptography, it remains difficult to let his work stand sans correct citation or notation. Moreover, Dylan’s willingness to enforce his copyright in cases where he feels his work has been infringed upon, and his attempts to conceal his use of external passages indicates that he is well aware of what he is doing. While crafting a literary memoir rarely requires accuracy of memory; Robert Graves, Vladimir Nabokov, Salvador Dali and others have all crafted memoirs that are clearly as literary as factual, the distinction has been that they all did so using words and imaginings that are firmly their own. One is left to wonder, with Dylan, not only whether what he has done is fair, but whether it is worthy of his own legacy.

  1. “Plagiarism in Dylan, Or a Cultural Collage?”. Jon Pareles, New York Times, July 12, 2003. []
  2. “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines From Henry Timrod?”. Motoko Rich, New York Times, September 12, 2006. []
  3. Many Lines in Chronicles are from Time Magazine”. Scott Warmuth, Expecting Rain, March 11, 2005. []
  4. More Dylan Thefts”. Edward Cook, Ralph, The Sacred River, September 27th, 2006. []
  5. “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One”. Scott Warmuth, New Haven Review, January, 2008, pp. 70-83. []

Alex Deley is an urban planner, writer, record collector and musician. He received his MS in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked in the US, France, and in West Africa. He can be reached at: alex.deley@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alexander, or visit Alexander's website.