Bob Dylan, Plagiarist?

Was Dylan's rise to songwriting fame ethical?

Bob Dylan speaking on stage

Michael Kovac/Stringer/Getty Images 

Back in April 2010, the blogosphere went amok after folksinger Joni Mitchell slandered Bob Dylan in the LA Times with a couple of kidney shots, accusing him of plagiarism. The debate over why Mitchell delivered the ultimate insult varied. “Envy” some proclaimed, while others chalked it up to interviewer Matt Diehl's ill-advised attempt to compare Mitchell with Bob Dylan: “The folk scene you came out of had fun creating personas. You were born Roberta Joan Anderson, and someone named Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.” And an inflamed Mitchell fired back: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” Ouch. Especially coming from a one-time stage mate and friend. Regardless, “plagiarist” is a mighty bold word to be flicking at anyone.

It's Discom-Bob-ulating

Back in June 2009, Christie's of New York auctioned one of Dylan's earliest handwritten poems, “Little Buddy,” scribbled in blue ink in crooked kid writing on a sheet of paper. Proudly signed “Bobby Zimmerman,” Dylan wrote the poem in 1957 and submitted it to The Herzl Herald, his Jewish summer camp paper. Less than 24 hours after Christie's announced the auction, somebody phoned Reuters news service saying that the poem was actually an old Hank Snow song titled, incidentally, “Little Buddy.” Snow released the song in the 1940s on a 78 RPM album, a copy of which the Zimmermans—big fans of the country singer—certainly had in their collection.

Hank Snow's version of “Little Buddy”

Broken hearted and so sad, golden curls all wet with tears,
'Twas a picture of sorrow to see.
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told me.

Bobby Zimmerman's version of “Little Buddy”

Broken hearted and so sad
Big blue eyes all covered with tears
Was a picture of sorrow to see

Kneeling close to the side
Of his pal and only pride
A little lad, these words he told me

Innocent as it was, obviously nobody ever schooled young Bobby Zimmerman on copyright infringement. But this poem is a very early example of Dylan's style of borrowing lyrics and melodies from various songs and stitching them together to form his own creations.

But Is It Plagiarism?

While Bobby Z's outright theft of Snow's lyrics is indeed plagiarism, whether his later work falls under that category is a matter of debate. There's a very fine line between what constitutes plagiarism and the thing called “pastiche” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as, “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work,” or, “a musical, literary, or musical composition made up of selections of different works.” A good portion of Dylan's canon falls under both of those definitions and accounts for much of his genius.

In American folk music, it's been a long-standing tradition to cut and paste from the songs of preceding generations. It's not only encouraged, but expected, and upon his 1961 arrival in New York, Dylan quickly proved his mastery at the form, borrowing left and right not only from his musical idol, Woody Guthrie but from old folk songs and American blues in the public domain. For instance, 1962's “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” owes its melody to the 1920s ballad, “Pretty Polly,” while the arrangement for “Masters of War” was taken from Jean Ritchie's “Nottamun Town,” an English folk song whose roots date back to the middle ages.

Modern Times (2006) became Dylan's most controversial record in regards to blatantly lifting lyrics and melodies—without crediting the original authors. While it was nothing new for Dylan, some fans were unfamiliar with the idea of pastiche and how much it figured into Dylan's songwriting style. After the album's release, scholars noted that lyrics in several songs were strikingly similar to the work of Civil War-era Confederate poet, Henry Timrod:

  • From Timrod's “Retirement”: “There is a wisdom that grows up in strife.”
  • From Dylan's “When the Deal Goes Down”: “Where wisdom grows up in strife.”
  • From Timrod's “Two Portraits”: “How then, O weary one!/Explain the sources of that hidden pain?”
  • From Dylan's “Spirit on the Water”: Can't explain/The sources of this hidden pain.”

While Dylan borrowed fragments of Timrod's poetry for "When the Deal Goes Down," the melody is based on Bing Crosby's staple hit, "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day).” On another note, Dylan used Muddy Waters' blues arrangement practically note for note in “Rollin' and Tumblin',” changing most of the lyrics but keeping the title. Dozens of these instances pepper the entire album. However, the album liner notes state, “All songs written by Bob Dylan.”

Pastiche of Pastiche

Many contemporary music critics and professors argue that pastiche is the most culturally advanced form of creative expression today, which would partly account for Dylan's massive success as a songwriter. Likewise, hip hop and DJ electronica explore pastiche with the use of samples from other songs. As far as borrowing melodies, Beck's song “Loser” sounds frighteningly close to the Allman Brother Band's hit “Midnight Rider,” while Vanilla Ice's “Ice Ice Baby” blatantly borrowed the bass line from Queen/David Bowie's hit “Under Pressure.”

Whether Dylan's controversial use of other artist's lines and melodies is ethical is the decision of the listener. But Dylan has always seen songs in the public domain as templates to build upon, and his borrowing of others' material is more likely his way of paying tribute to those who have had a major influence on him. In turn, next-generation artists often pay homage to Dylan for the impact he had on their music. In a nod to Dylan, in the video for the 1987 song “Mediate,” INXS frontman Michael Hutchence holds up and discards small hand-written signs, mimicking the black and white footage of Dylan's visual interpretation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And in their song “Finger Lickin' Good,” the Beastie Boys used a sample—“I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough”—lifted from Dylan's “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.” How's that for irony?