Seals and deals

As I mention on the front page, whatever efforts I have made to make a deal with someone in the position to do so, and to find a legitimate and permanent solution to the copyright issues surrounding a tab site like this, have failed, and dylanchords has now gone officially and openly underground.
As I also say, that doesn’t mean that all is over – on the contrary: this is where it begins, sort of. and are now available, as officially approved underground-mirror sites. They are not mirrors in the technical sense, and may thus not be completely identical, but we will try our best to keep them both updated. My sincerest thanks to the webmasters! Give them a big hand (and if you choose brokenbricks, surf over to itself – Jack White is worth checking out).

So much about the Deal. Then there is Seal. It’s a program, written by Heinrich Küttler, which transforms into a professionally typeset songbook, fully linked and indexed, too, so you can use it while you’re offline, as an alternative to the zip file of the website. It uses the programming language Ruby and the typesetting environment LaTeX, which you will need to have installed. This may seem like a daunting task (especially if you’re on Windows), but don’t let that scare you away: it’s hardly more complicated than downloading two files, installing them, and you’re in business.
I will provide more detailed instructions later on, so for the time being, here’s the preface to the book:


A while ago, I got a mail from a guy down in Germany. It said:

Should you be interested, I have converted some of your html tabs to LaTeX, because I created my own Dylan songbook and wanted it to look as good as could be.

There were also some pdf files of a couple of songs. To be honest, I didn’t think much about it — I didn’t really see how a LaTeX version of ‘some of the tabs’ would ever be useful for me. LaTeX — that wildly complicated markup language which claimed to produce the most beautiful output, typographically, but at the cost of a steep learning curve, and a default output which makes everything look like something from a mathematical journal (because they are all made in LaTeX).

I answered back, politely, I think (I hope). The reply I got in return mentioned something about making a whole book that one could take to the local copyshop and get bound.

I still wasn’t too impressed; I already had such a file — Adobe Acrobat could make the whole site into a big PDF file in a whiz, so why should I consider this anything special?

Well, in the end, I did, and I do, with ever greater thrill, joy, and inspiration, and the project, from which you are now reading this, has not only turned into a beautiful book, it has also become a story of friendship, intellectual stimulation, and inspiration to learn, which has — among other things — led me (slowly, slowly) to pick up my programming attempts where I left them in college, after I had made a semi-functional version of Minesweeper with 8×12 squares in Basic (remember? the programming language which the school authorities in the eighties thought that everyone needed to learn, now that the computer age was coming); in the end, it also led me to finally ditching Windows in favour of Linux, something I should have done a long time ago.

What Seal can do

But first things first.

This book — I quickly learned that it was not simply a matter of stuffing all the tab files into a PDF file and that was that. For instance, print out some pages from the tab files on the net and try to play from that, and you will sooner or later — sooner, I’d guess — run into tab systems which are divided in the middle, or verses which have the chords on one page and the lyrics on the next.

Then turn to page . . . — no, wait: any page — in this book, and you will find everything to be where it should be. Page breaks break pages, not songs.

If you’re reading this directly from a PDF file, you will also be able to use the index and the table of contents as a link page — quite handy for a 1500+ pages book, and nothing that my Adobe-generated PDF dump could ever dream of.

And new additions to the site? Changes, revisions? No problem — they are incorporated directly the next time you run the program (as long as you have the updated files, of course).

You want just a booklet with the songs from Empire Burlesque instead of the whole book? Sure, make some small changes to one file, and you have your ‘Love Songs from the Eighties’ hit parade collection in your hand.

And last but not least: it looks good. There are details which distinguish a professionally printed page from what you dump from Your Average Word Processor to your printer. Some of them are considerable (such as fonts: if Your Average Word Processor is called MS Word, your font will by default be Times New Roman or Arial — bad choices, whichever way you look at it), other are more subtle and will most likely not be noticed by anyone without a special interest or a trained eye. Yet, I happen to think that they are important, not only for the typography freaks who delight in the perfect curve of a Garamond ‘n’ and who take it as a personal insult if page margins aren’t proportioned according to the Golden Section. But in an age when most reading is done either from computer screens or from printouts from browsers or MS Word, where not a thought has been given to the visual appearance, I see it as the responsibility of anyone who produces text to make sure they are appealing; to counteract the print world’s equivalent to elevator muzak. It is my firm belief that good typography will not save the world, but that bad typography ruins it just a little. Seal counteracts this — not bad for a piece of guitar-strummer’s helper software, eh?

All this and more is done magically by HeinerKüttler’s creation, Seal. Here’s what it does, as seen from a layman’s perspective: it takes all the files from whatever version of Dylanchords you have got; turns it all into LaTeX files, where hyphenations, page breaks, fonts, layout, and what not is taken care of; generates an index from this; and outputs it to PDF or postscript. And voilà — you have a book in your hands, which rivals any chord book you can buy, both in terms of layout quality, and of usability and versatility.

In order for it to work, there was a whole lot that had to be done with the files on the site. When I started making the site in 1997, I didn’t know much about html, and I used software which knew even less. Over the years, this had resulted in a jumble of files, some of which were ok, many of which were horrible, and none of which were valid files, in any definition of html.

But Heiner had put together a script which did away with the worst outgrowths, and from there, I could clean out the rest. In May 2005 the files were good enough to replace the old ones. Thus, Seal turned out to have benefits beyond the use of Seal itself.

That is just about all I can tell you about it; for the technical details, ask Heiner. What I know is: it works!

What you can do

What you can do? Well, you can do anything you can with any other pdf file, such as: print it out or send it to your friends, but that’s not what I was going to say. The contents is released under the Creative Commons (CC) licence. This means that you are free — and encouraged:

  • to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work
  • to make derivative works

as long as you:

  • attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, and
    don’t use it for commercial purposes.
  • If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

In other words: just like the dylanchords site, the contents is distributed freely, available for anyone who wants to play some good music, and — hopefully — learn something along the way. The conditions are that the attribution is retained, that you don’t make any money from it (I don’t count the free beer you get, playing from it in your local pub), and that if you use it in a “derivative work”, e.g. include it in teaching material or make your own book, this new work should also be made publicly available under the same conditions.

The intention is to make sure the material is and will remain freely available, but without abandoning all control. That is why the CC licence is also labeled “Some Rights Reserved”. It is not a complete “copyleft”.

It goes without saying that this applies only to the parts of the contents which is in some way or another my “intellectual property” — the introductions and instructions, of course, but even the chord charts fall under this category, even though Bob Dylan, as the copyright holder of the original work, has the right to decide about their publication. The same, naturally, goes for the lyrics (where my contribution is more modest: correcting some errors in the published versions, and, probably, adding some new ones).

I’ve been hesitant to put a CC banner on the site before because of this — I wouldn’t want to postulate a publishing licence for Dylan’s work — but I now feel more confident and justified, both because the context is different, and because I now know more about the legal issues involved.

For me, this is a way of responding to the statement “Everybody must give something back for something they get”. Working this closely with Dylan’s music over the years has given me tremendously much: a deeper insight in one of the most remarkable musicians in modern Western culture; a peek into the musical universe populated by the likes of Dock Boggs, Woody Guthrie, heck, even Hank Williams, which I would otherwise never have touched but which has been opened up with Dylan as a guide; some great friends; some html skills; and an opportunity to tune my ear (and my guitar). This is my way of paying back.

One thought on “Seals and deals

  1. It’s great to see dylanchords active again.

    I value this place as much for the essays and blog musings as for the tab itself. I was starting to worry that you’d hung it up for good.

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