Tangled Up in New Appropriation has always played a key role in Bob Dylan’s music. Critics and fans alike have found striking similarities between Dylan’s lyrics and the words of other writers. On his album “Love and Theft,” a fan spotted many passages similar to lines from “Confessions of a Yakuza,” a gangster novel written by Junichi Saga. Other fans have pointed out the numerous references to lines of dialogue from movies and dramas that appear throughout Dylan’s works.
He has stolen words from Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more recently, Henry Timrod in his latest album, “Modern Times”. Culturally, we have reached a point in time where revisiting past movements and styles have become the norm in music, literature and other media. The challenge for all creative works in this era has become more of an exercise in borrowing from one’s influences rather than drawing from one’s invention or original thought. And you know what? It’s okay.
We cannot help but be influenced by what we see; that’s just being human. Tracing influence is a very hard task, one that can never be complete because of the countless stimuli encountered every time anyone opens his or her eyes and ears, something true for both author/artist and reader. Dylan could not possibly be aware of all of the ideas that influenced him over his lifetime. But from the influences he is aware of, why should he be expected to report every single line he has appropriated into his lyrics?
According to Motoko Rich’s article, Scott Warmuth, a disc jockey in Albuquerque and a former music director for WUSB, a public radio station in Stony Brook, Long Island, discovered the similarities between Dylan’s lyrics and Henry Timrod’s poetry.
. Mr. Warmuth said he wasn’t surprised to find that Mr. Dylan had leaned on a strong influence when writing his lyrics. “I think that’s the way Bob Dylan has always written songs,” he said. “It’s part of the folk process, even if you look from his first album until now” (Rich 1). More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours,” the 65-year-old Dylan sings in “When the Deal Goes Down,” one of the songs on “Modern Times. ” Compare that to these lines from Timrod’s “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”: A round of precious hours Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers. (Timrod, qtd. in Rich.
To Warmuth, who found ten phrases echoing Timrod’s poetry on “Modern Times,” Dylan’s work is still original. “You could give the collected works of Henry Timrod to a bunch of people, but none of them are going to come up with Bob Dylan songs”. The Bible has been another important resource for Dylan’s writing, but it is still only one of many influences for his music. The interaction of these influences with one another is extremely significant, for this is essentially how Dylan’s ideas came to flourish in the music industry. This is brought about in the subject of intertextuality. At its simplest form, the term intertextuality has been used to mean source identification. The word is credited to Julia Kristeva, who recognized the influence of different “texts” on writing, reading and interpretation of literature.
It developed out of concern about the relationship of the classical literary tradition with contemporary works of literature. It was also concerned with the role that culture and society played in the construction of literary meaning and expression. Although the term is important to consider when identifying an author’s influences, it has often been viewed as an oversimplification. Julia Kristeva once referred to the word as the “banal sense of ‘study of sources'” and Harold Bloom described it as the “wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting”. What is at issue here is interpretation. Does the reconstruction of all the sources for an essay make up the meaning of the text? Most certainly not. We may be able to offer particular ways to interpret and understand the lyrics of a song or the words of a poem, but we still cannot claim to have discovered the true meaning of the influences to create that text.
This is something not even the author/artist can do. How can an author fully explain the meaning of a text when so many influences have been fed into it? This is a reality that Dylan is fully aware of: You have to have seen something or have heard something for you to dream it. It becomes your dream then. Whereas fantasy is just your imagination wandering around. I don’t really look at my stuff like that. It’s happened, it’s been said, I’ve heard it; I have proof of it. I’m a messenger. I get it. It comes to me so I give it back in my particular style. Artists cannot escape the continuous barrage of new influences brought to them by each new life experience they encounter.
An ongoing conversation with these influences occurs as a result, and writers inevitably draw inward from that growing experience for inspiration. “The text produced by a writer is … a processing of other texts and also a reply to other texts, with which the writer is maintaining a living dialogue”. T. S. Eliot is acknowledged as the originating influence on later intertextual studies. In his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot challenged the assumption that poetic inspiration was solely the fruit of the poet’s genius and inspiration. Poetic meaning, he argued, was not only personal, but also communal: We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, [the] ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
Eliot’s point is that the meaning of a poem is influenced by the writer’s predecessors, and that the meaning of a text is not confined to the time of its creation. Its meaning develops even beyond the death of its writer. Texts do not stand alone or in isolation; they are interrelated to other texts. It is a “living whole,” and is dependent on what preceded. Literature is the fruit of interrelated texts. Dylan is a master at intertexuality, rewriting earlier songs, both his own and “borrowed” traditional blues and folk material, but always with a new twist, sometimes by incorporating Biblical and classical mythology or by transforming current idioms. Dylan’s ancestry stretches back to Old Testament Prophets and to political progressives, but also musically to African-American gospel and blues singers and to the old English and Appalachian troubadours.
Dylan has shown respect for the sources of the transcendence as he refines from the old blues and folk traditions by singing a vast array of classic songs, from “Copper Kettle” and “Alberta” to “Delia” and “Froggy Went A-Courtin’,” with such a depth of feeling that a casual listener would not suspect they were not his own writings. Perry Glasser believes that intertextuality as a form of homage, done without acknowledgement, permission or credit, is stealing. “‘Intertextuality,’ like ‘permanently borrowing,’ is a rhetorical dodge to avoid the word ‘theft. When your neighbor mows his lawn with your mower that he borrowed 3 years before, you are not receiving an homage. No one in the neighborhood recalls the good old days when you mowed your own lawn–now overrun with weeds”.
Because Timrod is long dead and his work has fallen out of copyright — you can find his collected poems on the Internet — there is no legal claim that could be made against Dylan’s use of his works. And that’s exactly what bothers Chris Dineen, a middle school Spanish teacher and casual fan of Dylan. “It seems kind of duplicitous,” he said of Dylan’s borrowing from poet Henry Timrod. Even casual fans know that Dylan has a history of doing this and it’s part of what makes him great, but this is different. This is one poet who’s used over and over and over again” (Rich 2). 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”.
But James Kibler, a professor of English at the University of Georgia who teaches the poetry of Timrod in his Southern literature classes, was delighted to hear of Dylan’s use of the verse. If I were Timrod, I would love it. I would say he’s doing a great honor to Timrod and let’s celebrate that”. If you’re an avid reader who also writes, you will often find yourself using lines floating around in your head — only to later realize that you did indeed read them somewhere else. “I know I’ve repurposed a line from Cormac McCarthy — taking his idea and putting the sentiment into my own words and voice. This is my most conscious example of thievery, but even then, nobody but me would know the truth”.
In many ways, the line between using another’s work as a jumping-off point and plagiarism comes in the execution. Art has always borrowed from previous works. Thank goodness for the cavemen. Where would we be today if someone hadn’t taken the initiative to draw and sing and tell stories? All writers, to an extent, borrow or repurpose pieces of others’ works. In some cases, it’s taking a well-known story and modernizing it or retelling the tale in a fresh way (see each and every version of Pride & Prejudice).
In others, it’s borrowing a phrase or notion, creating a homage to someone you admire (see just about every Martin Luther King speech). The acceptability of the text lies in its execution. Martin Luther King borrowed from texts he assumed people already knew, such as quotes from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Pride & Prejudice has been recreated many times, but the title and themes are still accredited to the original text. Current copyright laws do not protect artists in the way the original copyright laws were envisioned.
The original goal was that the laws would protect the works of an artist for a limited period of time. In return, the artist would give back to the world in the form of allowing their work to enter the public domain. This changed with the imminent entry of Mickey Mouse in the public domain, with the irony lost only on Disney. This change is causing us not only to re-evaluate our concepts of copyright, but also our notions of fair use and even borrowing. All literature is being brought down by the individual’s rights of ownership, whatever they may be.
We all want to be recognized for our talent, for the greatness we all envy in others, waiting for the perfect sentence or stanza to leap out. We want to own our words, but we have forgotten that they already own us. Literature is organic by nature, and attempts to make it anything but organic are, perverse, in the truest sense of the word. Long ago, literature was, to the body of society, the lifeblood; today, it is the mustache, the fake fingernails, and the Versaci belt. It was the meat; it has become the garnish. Literature has been transformed from a means of survival into a means of pure expression.
When literature conveyed information, lessons, morals, etc. , that were essential to survival, no one cared if the ideas were original. Now, when literature is simply a way of exploring the “intricacies of existence,” and especially now that our every word can be recorded for posterity, every person who picks up a pen or sits at a keyboard feels “inherently entitled to unilateral ownership of anything original”. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Homer “stole,” but he made it beautiful, useful and original. “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion”.
Shakespeare “stole,” but he perfected borrowed material to such an extent that the result was his own. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest”. Bob Dylan “stole” from the ancient times to create the “Modern Times. ” The world is shrinking, yes, but the amount of information available to us continues to expand at an exponential rate. Literature must be community-based, freely exchanged, and, effectively, open-source. We all want to decide which version of our own words are greatest, but that should not be our concern. History decides, posterity decides, the community decides; we merely contribute our part.