The question is not so much: “Is this a good Dylan album?” – which it is – as “Is this a Dylan album?” – which it isn’t.
First the lyrics: as Scott Warmuth has discovered, through an ingenious google investigation, several lines of lyrics are lifted from the works of the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy” Henry Timrod in much the same way as Yunichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza unwittingly contributed to “Love and Theft”. This has caused considerable reactions, in far wider circles than usual.
So, is Dylan a thieving scoundrel and a plagiarist, or a genius who transforms what he reads into new gems?
The lyrical side of his creative borrowings don’t bother me a single bit, and I’m surprised that such a fuss has been made over this. If anything, they add to the value of Dylan’s effort, rather than subtract from it. I would never call any of that plagiarism, neither in the case of Modern Times nor of “Love and Theft”. I can’t imagine Dylan sitting there in his divine solitude, struggling with a line, then walking over to the bookshelf and picking out Timrod or Saga in search for a line that would work. Now, that would have come closer to plagiarism: to let someone else do the job. I imagine it’s the other way around: Dylan has read Yakuza and Timrod, certain phrases and figures have stuck in his mind, from where they in due time have popped up again, in a completely new context. This kind of use is not dictated by need but by circumstance, coincidence, “intuition” if you wish. That is what I find fascinating about the use of these sources on these two albums: they highlight just how it is that things “pop up” in one’s mind – how people think.
But my surprise by the overreaction regarding a few creatively transformed word connections is multiplied by the lack of a similar reaction to the musical borrowings. These are both much more substantial and much more difficult to defend.
At the time of writing (Wed 20 Sept, 16:08 CET), the following songs on Modern Times have known models for their music:
- Rollin’ and Tumblin’ • Taken from Muddy Water’s version of Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble Blues” from 1929.
- When the Deal Goes Down • based on Bing Crosby’s trademark song “Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)” by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert
- Beyond the Horizon • Taken from Jim Kennedy’s “Red Sails in the Sunset”
- The Levee’s Gonna Break • taken wholesale (apart from a few new lines of lyrics here and there) from Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” from 1929.
- Someday Baby • taken from “Worried Life Blues” (aka “Someday Baby” or “Trouble No More”), performed by Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, the Animals, and Bob Dylan himself (Toad’s Place, 1990), just to mention a few.
These are not just influences: in all cases, the chord structure is lifted from the models and the melody is clearly recognizable, and in some cases, the whole arrangement is “borrowed”.
That’s five out of ten. Furthermore, I’d be very surprised if the music to Spirit on the Water is Dylan’s own. Thunder on the Mountain could be by anyone, and probably is. That leaves us with three songs where the music is – at least until proven otherwise – truly “by Bob Dylan”.
It so happens that these are the three strongest songs on the album: “Nettie Moore”, “Ain’t Talkin’” and “Workingman’s Blues #2”. I don’t know if this is good news or bad: it is reassuring that his own songs are the best, but why, then, did he have to put in the rest of it – didn’t he have more than three songs in him in five years?
If this is a sign of creative drought, that may be a matter of concern regarding the possibility of more albums in the future, but in this particular context, it’s not my main concern.
If the various textual allusions and citations can be redeemed as a fascinating display of creative intertextual intution, it is quite the opposite with the music. When Dylan w/band play the exact same notes and the exact same solos as Muddy Waters did on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, that’s not “intuition” or creative translocation, it’s just “letting Muddy do the job”, plain and simple. That doesn’t add to my appreciation of the work – on the contrary.
Not all the borrowings are as straightforward as “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. “When the Deal Goes Down” is a more interesting case. It is quite analogous to his version of “You Belong To Me” or just about every live cover he has performed during the Never Ending Tour years: his melody is quite different from the original; he has clearly made it his own, although the tune is clearly the same. The difference is that “You Belong To Me” doesn’t have “Written by Bob Dylan” under it.
Putting the label “All songs written by Bob Dylan” on this CD is plain indecency. Again, this applies only to the music; I would not have wished to see anyhing like: “Words by Bob Dylan and Henry Timrod”. But I would have liked to see: “Words: Bob Dylan, Music: Muddy Waters” (disregarding here the fact that Muddy didn’t write the tune either, but that’s moot: he played those solos, he shaped the song into the form which Dylan has taken over, so for all intents and purposes Muddy is the originator). If Dylan has copyrighted the tunes of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and Beyond the Horizon, he gets money from selling something he didn’t own in the first place. And regardless of the money, by putting “by Bob Dylan” under it he is taking creative credit for something he didn’t create, stating “This is what I have to say” without actually saying anything. That’s my main concern: he isn’t saying anything. And as Tom Lehrer so eloquently put it: “If you can’t communicate, the least you can do is shut up!”
As more and more references and borrowings were discovered on “Love and Theft”, I got this wonderful vision: what if it wasn’t just a few lines of Japanese gangster-lore here and there – what if every note and every lyric line were direct quotations, put together in a grand collage – that would have been a major achievement, and a bold highlighting of the problematic of communication, by blurring the normally well-established pattern of sender-receiver; pointing (fingers) to our expectations and norms, and proving them to be wrong. It would have been like a game. And that title … But when the same thing happens on Modern Times, only without the extra level of “game”, it just becomes a sign of someone who is content with playing lounge music, but who has a reputation to live up to and a record company with an over-zealous sales department on his back.
Some have defended Dylan with reference to the folk tradition. “This is what one does there: one takes what one hears and builds on that. This is what Dylan has always done.” Etc. Fair enough, but only to a point. Of course, there are contexts where, for historical or other reasons, a legalistic approach to authorship may be less relevant than in other contexts, or at least require an interpretation in the light of practice, the “folk tradition” being one such context. The next question would then be if a multi-million seller is at all comparable to the swapping, sharing, reworking of songs in coffee-houses or dance halls which I would more immediately associate with the “folk tradition”. If the folk tradition is about community, sharing, and freedom of expression, Modern Times does that, but it does a lot of other things too, such as making money for the artist, the record company, and the manager’s uncle, which places it in a completely different context.
Besides, as Nick Manho said on the dylanpool (making a point that he had borrowed/stolen from emily smith):
The difference between Bob ripping off the blues guys in the 60s and Bob ripping off the blues guys now is that in the 60s Bob’s rip-offs were better than the originals.
There’s a point in that. Not that quality would be a justification for rip-offs, nor that the statement is always true, taken literally, but to the extent that standing in a creative tradition would imply taking in something from a common storehouse (whether or not an original composer can be identified), processing it, and putting out something which adds something to the input. The point of standing on others’ shoulders should be to see farther, not to stand taller. ’Being in the folk tradition’ isn’t a valid excuse for acting more like a thieving bastard than as a creative musician with a rich heritage.