Convergence through plagiarism

Suzanne Vega wrote this New York Times op-ed piece about the plagiarism accusations against Bob Dylan. How much convergence can I get? I have been a Suzanne Vega fan for a long time and a Dylan fan, too. I am quite interested in the modern issues of intellectual property and their relationship to artistic creation. I tend to think that using the art of others in new contexts is good. I resist the use of “steal” and “piracy” to describe the practice. Recycling of art primarily takes from the pride and protectionism of others, and they ought to be whittled down.

This previous Times article and this story from NPR‘s All Things Considered give a little background. Bob Dylan took from Henry Timrod on his new album Modern Times and a few other places. I am thinking that he took from Charlie Chaplin, too. Disc jockey Scott Warmuth discovered the connections and started this discussion thread. The Times even has this handy chart. The man who wrote “Oxford Town” also quotes the poet laureate of the Confederacy. Amusement is a better choice than annoyance.

Bob Dylan has used others’ prior art throughout his career. No Direction Home documented it well. Dave Van Ronk felt betrayed by Dylan’s choices of what to include on his very first album. Dylan knew how to appropriate before entering the studio. His hero Woody Guthrie borrowed from all over as shown in previously blogged Woody Guthrie: Ain’t Got No Home. My recent fascination with Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas revealed where “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” (and Canned Heat‘s “Going Up the Country“) came from.

It’s modern to use history as a kind of closet in which we can rummage around, pull influences from different eras, and make them into collages or pastiches. People are doing this with music all the time. I hear it in, say, Christina Aguilera’s new album, or in the music of Sufjan Stevens.

A few months ago, I investigated the famous Aaron Copland ballet Rodeo. I had heard that Hoe-Down, the most famous section, was based on an old fiddle tune. I found that the inspiration was William H. “Bill” Stepp’s recording of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” available here and here, made by often blogged Alan Lomax and subsequently transcribed by Ruth Crawford Seeger. To my ear, Copland’s arrangement is wonderful, and the original is even better. I found this post, the last in a series, that traces the path from Stepp to Copland.

I am also reminded of George Harrison. His “Something” and “My Sweet Lord” both show obvious reuse of previous songs. He got sued and roundly insulted for “My Sweet Lord,” and I have read snide comments about his penchant for borrowing. I have felt the same way about him. Then I started listening. George Harrison wrote some great songs. Although his Beatles songs were few, the good ones, such as “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” stand up well against Lennon-McCartney numbers. His post-Beatles work has some gems. I listen to “What Is Life” and “When We Was Fab” over and over and over. Effective recycling is evidence that a musician has good ears.

In the article, Vega considers whether Dylan purposefully used Civil War poetry. Does it matter? If the “dean of American composers” can create the most famous American composition by quoting a virtuoso country fiddler, Bob Dylan can quote an old poet as directly as he pleases. Is Dylan “a thieving little swine” as called in the discussion thread? Judging from what I have seen and read, he has been much worse to many people many times. To worry about theft is missing the point. I do not listen to his music because I wish I had him as a friend.

Mr. Dineen said he would have been happy if Mr. Dylan had just given Timrod credit for the lines. “Maybe it’s the teacher in me. If I found out that he had done this in a research paper, he’d be in big trouble.”

Mr. Dineen has it backwards. Research papers are written about Bob Dylan, not the other way around. If he were writing a term paper, he should fail and be turned over the the honor council. Dylan, however, writes songs. All of life should not follow those rules. From “Tom’s Diner,” Vega knows the real rules, and her piece addresses them. In America and similar political entities, just make sure everybody gets real paid (or contractually swindled such that payment is unnecessary).

As I am wont to do, I assign some blame of this misguided controversy to a favorite idea. We need more amateur art. The default path is to be spectator and critic, but the hop to being participant and creator is small. Too much of this bellyaching comes from passivity. Playing and singing provide forceful demonstrations about musical creation. Playing an existing composition as written is a creative process. So is changing it up. So is taking off in a new direction altogether. So are all combinations of the three. DJing shows that even playing recorded music can be, too.

I imagine that using history as a closet is modern only to the extent that we moderns have more history available in our libraries and on our intarwebs. To create good music is to negotiate between the novel and the familiar. My suspicion is that the second song ever sung took from the first.


Michael M. on September 17th 2006 in General, Music, Recorded

3 Responses to “Convergence through plagiarism”

  1. mary responded on 18 Sep 2006 at 2:59 am #

    Excellant article. Why should Dylan write footnotes?
    There is no evidence Dylan consciously stole the
    lines from Henry Timrod and if you look at the poems
    it’s actually just pieces of lines that are in the songs.
    It’s probably a different thing to take songs like
    Nettie Moore and Rollin and Tumblin and claim
    they’re original-they’re based on other songs.

  2. diatriber responded on 18 Sep 2006 at 2:56 pm #

    Great post. Considering George Harrison it seems 90% of popular songs are written in standard tuning using G, D, C, A, E, etc chords, shouldn’t we expect them to often sound similar? Even with my meager guitar skills I can play Folsom Prison Blues, or Johnny B. Goode or Money (That’s What I Want) by altering the strumming of E, A & B7. Who’s zooming who? Or even better, is there really any such thing as an original thought?

  3. Michael M. responded on 18 Sep 2006 at 10:20 pm #

    Get a capo, and you will be set. I think that “Folsom Prison Blues” is in G and “Johnny B. Goode” is in A. I am less sure about “Money.” It probably is in E, no capo required. I-IV-V is just good.

    My favorite high school teacher told us a story about the search for the proto-language. Supposedly, some scholars had children raising without being talked to with the plan of then studying how they spoke to find the natural language. The children ended up unsocialized and mute. The Origin of language Wikipedia entry has similar anecdotes with two links.

    We need context. Too much emphasis on originality is silly. Among the many problems with it, originality is far less important than whether something is any good, and most relatively new ideas, in my experience, are duds anyway.

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