A writer for the New Yorker was forced out earlier this year over charges of plagiarism and fabrication, including making up Bob Dylan quotes out of whole cloth. But Dylan, who obviously isn’t subject to journalistic standards of ethics, has been dogged by his own plagiarism accusations for years. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan blasts his critics in no uncertain terms, describing his borrowing as a traditional aspect of songwriting. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff,” he’s quoted as saying.
Asked to respond to critics who say Dylan doesn’t give his sources enough credit, the 71-year-old singer-songwriter — currently promoting new album Tempest (not The Tempest) — sounds off in classic, witheringly contemptuous form. “Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition, he’s quoted as saying. “That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. There are different rules for me.”
Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft appeared to borrow lyrics from Junichi Saga’s novel Confessions of a Yakuza. On 2006’s Modern Times, he used imagery very similar to that of the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. A series of Dylan paintings on display in New York last fall closely resembled historical photographs. Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, appears to draw without attribution from a hodgepodge of sources, including, weirdly, vintage issues of Time magazine — the very publication recently forced to suspend a columnist for doing basically what Dylan appears to have done: barely re-word another person’s writing, without so much as citing the source.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan responds to one of those charges directly. “And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him?” he asks. “Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get.”
Dylan also links his plagiarism accusers to the audience member who famously shouted “Judas” at a 1966 Dylan concert in Manchester, England. “These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history!” he explains. “If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.” (One person who claims to have been the Judas name-caller has said it wasn’t about the electric guitar but rather a poor sound system, though it’s all part of the Dylan myth now.)
Here’s the thing: Dylan is totally right, not only that a free exchange of culture, including borrowing, is part of a long folkloric tradition, but also that it’s a vital part of artistic creation. As the New York Times Jon Pareles’ wrote in 2003, “Ideas aren’t meant to be carved in stone and left inviolate; they’re meant to stimulate the next idea and the next.” Everybody steals from everybody. That’s art.
At the same time, though, there’s a certain level of hypocrisy to Dylan’s statement. “Can you treat it like an oil well?” Pavement once sang, and that’s not a bad analogy for how the generation that made rock’n’roll a gazillion-dollar business has treated what was once humanity’s shared cultural birthright — not freely trading ideas so much as mining up what previous generations have come up with, slapping a copyright on them, and watching the royalties roll in, while more recent borrowers like the Beastie Boys get sued, Girl Talk puts out albums out for free, and rap sampling is reduced to Flo-Rida levels of easily authorizable obviousness.
As we’ve mentioned before, a quintessential example of how ’60s rockers turned a public gift into private property, oil-company style, is the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” The Stones borrowed elements of that tune from a gospel song that had been recorded by James Brown and the Staple Singers, a song that traced its roots back to writers whose names aren’t known. But when the Verve so much as sampled an orchestral version of “The Last Time,” one the Stones didn’t even sing on, guess who got sued?
Dylan himself once filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Apple for so much as using the pseudonym he himself got from Dylan Thomas. Legend has it Dylan even settled out of court with Hootie and the Blowfish for their allusion to his lyrics on 1995’s “Only Wanna Be With You” — an auction house even claims to have sold what it says is the signed settlement agreement — but we haven’t been able to find reliable corroboration.
Not that such a problem would ever stop Dylan. Which brings us back to the real flaw in his deeply entertaining argument: While he appears to be advocating freedom of expression, he’s simultaneously defending his own entrenched power — a power which, if other borrowers shared it, would probably protect them from retribution, too.
“It’s called songwriting,” Dylan tells Rolling Stone. “It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes.” He’s right. But he also brings to mind a recent quote by the singer and songwriter Josephine Foster, who has compared traditional, anonymously written folk songs to “jewels … strange jewels.” If that comparison holds true, then Dylan is simply following the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Or he could just be talking jive. The rest of us can’t afford to — we might get sued or lose our jobs.