Last Words on Dignity (the song, that is)

The story so far

I’ve been involved with the Damiano-Dignity “case” now for more than a decade. Here’s a summary, and my last words (I hope) on this matter.

Act One: Musicological Inquiries

When I first heard that Dylan had stolen “Dignity” from a poor songwriter, James Damiano, I was more sympathetic towards the victim than surprised about the theft.

Then, the victim started flooding the net with his case. Somewhere in the vast material, which mostly set out to prove — in tedious detail — the degree and kind of contact between Damiano and various persons somehow associated with Dylan’s organization, there was also one piece of musical evidence: a graph comparing Dignity” and “Steel Guitars”, the song Dylan allegedly had appropriated:

Dignity and Steel Guitars
Graph showing similarities between Dignity and Steel Guitars

This piqued my interest — partly because the skeleton to which “Dignity” was reduced didn’t bear much resemblance to the melody itself, partly because this kind of reductive music analysis, which is still today, for mysterious reasons, en vogue at American universities, is demonstrably not able to reveal much of interest about the musical object, since — as has been shown by many scholars — widely different compositions can be reduced to the same pitch sequence.

I would have liked to hear “Steel Guitars”, but among the many hours of videotaped material Damiano presented on his webpage, that was the one item that was missing. The closest thing was a video from court, where Damiano’s crown witness, Dr. Paul Greene, plays the skeleton melody from the graph above, over the accompaniment of “Dignity”. (Sounds a lot like “Dignity”? Sure — it is “Dignity”, with some random notes added here and there.)

I then wrote a little piece about the questions this graph raised. My conclusion was that it was impossible, based on this graph, to say anything conclusive about possible similarities between the two songs, and that I would like to hear the un-reduced version of the song.

Damiano responded, variously calling my very existence into question and claiming that I was paid by Dylan to put forth such lies, that I was too much of a coward to face the truth (his favoured nickname for me over the past few years has been “The Weasel”), etc.

Act Two: Close Encounters

When he eventually threatened to start an email bombing campaign against me, I decided it was time to contact him directly:

What you’re describing in your mail amounts to a threat of email bombing, which, being a kind of denial of service attacks, is a federal crime in the States, and I could sue you for it. Your ISP probably wouldn’t like it either.

We then entered into a direct communication — a strange experience indeed. During our communication, I finally got to hear the song:
James Damiano – Steel Guitars Dignity by JamesDamiano

The Last Words: Musical and Psychological Analysis

The following is a revised and condensed version of what I wrote to James Damiano on that occasion (this was in August 2009). I present it here, not to put anyone on the spot, but to complete what I’ve written publicly about the case — most notably: the full musicological analysis of the two tunes:

*

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but it doesn’t really matter how much effort you put into proving that Dylan — or someone in his ‘organization’ — has actually heard your material: if the songs don’t sound the same, what’s the point of proving it?

And they don’t.

If a song consists of harmony, melody, rhythm, and overall structure to bind them all together, I would say that:

(1) the harmony is different:

your song goes:

||: G . . . | . . . .  |
    D . . . | . . G . :||
    C . G . | C . G .  |
    C . G . | C D | G . . . |

whereas Dignity goes (transposed to the same key):

||: G . . . | . . .   . |
    C . G . | . . C/d G :||
    D . . . | C . G   . |
    C . G/d . | Am .  D . ||

The only thing they have in common is the first line — which is a single chord….

Do you have your own very special way of playing the same chord over long stretches, which Dylan then has stolen? Or is it something else?

Other than that, the harmonic structure, i.e. the arch of tension in the song, is virtually reversed: you start with a G-D alternation, i.e. a strong tonic-dominant polarity; Dylan starts with a G-C relationship, where the C hardly breaks out of the control of the G.

Your refrain — which is a true refrain with a tonal closure — is harmonically identical to the Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love (you haven’t stolen it, have you?). Dylan’s, on the other hand, is not a refrain, but a bridge, ending on the dominant, D, getting ready for the next pair of verses.

The above also implies that the overall harmonic structure is radically different between the two songs. And having heard a few of your songs, and having worked with Dylan’s music more extensively, I can say with some confidence that this is in fact a decisive factor: the differences I have pointed out above correspond closely to differences between your idioms, your musical directions.

(2) As for melody:

I can’t really find something to call a melody in any strong sense of the word in Steel Guitars, and I would have liked to see it pointed out where exactly you find the melodic similarities. Also, where exactly, among all the improvised doodling, Dr. Greene has found the notes that he picked out for his reductive analysis. It’s not that they jump in the eye (or: ear), and Dylan’s melody for “Dignity” is nowhere to be heard.

(3) Lastly, the rhythmical side

is also different, which makes it a nasty trick to play the melody of “Steel Guitars” — whatever it is — over the rhythmic accompaniment of “Dignity” in order to prove the similarity.

(4) Overall Structure

In fact, I would have a much stronger case for the claim that the refrain of your “song” is borrowed/stolen from the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” than you have for your claim about Dylan stealing your tune.

I won’t make that claim, however, because all the songs I’ve heard so far on your site are extremely derivative. You’d have a hard time finding a single record in the history of popular music which didn’t have some song which showed similarities with some of your songs. Have they all stolen from you? No. Just as little as every poet who uses the words “love”, “and”, or “flower” have stolen from Shakespeare.

*

You know that scene in Don’t Look Back? Where the guy who is covering up for the one who threw the glass out of the hotel room window is comparing himself to Dylan? “You’re a big noise”, I think is what he says. “You’re a big noise, and I’m a little noise.” Something like that.

That’s the saddest scene I know, at least in any Dylan movie. Because it is so recognizable, somehow. There are some people around who want to be a big noise too. Some of them are — and some turn into it. But some people, like the guy in the movie, are happy to be a small noise (as long, perhaps, as they are allowed to spend some time in the big noise’s hotel room), and that’s the sad part.

Basically, I think we all want to be big noises — and so we should, at least in our own lives and the lives of those close to us.

But here’s the lesson to you: you can stand on a giant’s shoulders and see farther than the giant, but you can’t stand on a big noise and scream louder than him.

You have to figure out where your worth lies, independently of Dylan.

Have you ever tried to open up to the thought: maybe Dylan didn’t steal my song, maybe I’m not the little guy who’s been screwed by the big guy after all?

You may have been screwed — we all have, some way or another — but perhaps nobody in particular is to blame.

It’s nice to have someone to blame for one’s misery, but often things happen without them being anyone’s fault — they just happen.

I can understand it if you’d rather be a music star than paint people’s houses. But perhaps it’s not Dylan’s fault that things are the way they are?

Postscript

Our conversation came to a halt after I asked Damiano to comment, in his own words, on what I had written.

I’m still waiting.

I consider the case closed. And I urge anyone who still thinks Dylan has stolen “Dignity” to come forth with clear arguments.

I’ve pursued the case as far as I have, not to harm James Damiano, and definitely not to defend Bob Dylan, but mainly out of righteous, professional anger at the analysis of Dr. Greene, which is either just flawed or — more likely — simply fraudulent.

There are two intriguing things in all this.

One is that Dylan’s organization apparently is so musically incompetent that they have let it come as far as a court case — even one they won. I heard somewhere that Dylan had advised his son never to receive anything from his fans, partly because of the Damiano madness. Why not just contact some competent musicologist who could conclusively state what anyone can hear (even Judge Simandle): that there isn’t an ounce of similarity between the two songs?

The other strange thing is that all this fuss is about this song, “Dignity” — hardly Dylan’s most exciting song, I’d almost say: musically rather boring. If I wanted to claim authorship of a Dylan-song, I’d go for “Most of the Time” or something — not a simple three-(plus)-chord song.

Damiano’s material in support of his case can be found here: http://christinejustice.yolasite.com/


11 thoughts on “Last Words on Dignity (the song, that is)

  1. Eyolf, sir, this was definitely worth the trip, as they say!
    Mr JD posted a picture of his new billboard on Facebook and tagged a “friend” (so it showed in my feed) {- shall we say, NOT the person listed in Wiki as b. March 8, 1821 – d. August 7, 1898 … Mormon colonizer and Patriarch who founded the cities of LAYTON, Utah, etc … =ahem=, but a synonymously eponymous musician of my professional acquaintance
    [- ooo, i must remember that!]}

    Having been a fan of Mr Dylan since about 1964, and simultaneously a student of the chicanery of modern business (as a young “revolutionary”), i followed it up fearing the worst, and went to his specified website…

    Watched the little movie trailer, read a few pages of JD’s, hmmm, well, statements, that i now perceive as endlessly repeated rantings (good thing he’s NOT a web-designer!) and said to myself “His attorney is a realtor, too? … hmmm” … {Methinks he needs a web-designer more!}

    I went back to his FB wall and scrolled through as many of the spam-esque repostings of the same things as i could take seeking “new” cogent info [about 3 days back!]. {Can you spam your own Wall?}

    I almost walked away from it all at that point and said, =jeez=, i gave up on becoming a lawyer for these very reasons, and became an anarchist Artiste instead =chortle=! {Check *my* music on reverbnation and see how hard it would be for someone to be derivative of my “noise”! The old “My Sweet Lord” / “He’s So Fine” case was a significant motivator to this young composer some 40 years ago! (i am, however, an inveterate plagarist as a writer!)}

    Being a bit of a Google freak, i thought i’d see what came up on JD’s name and your site was #2 … Read your quick and thorough musicological analysis in your faq entitled “Did Dylan Steal Dignity” and, somehow not realizing that you were the “evil Ostrem” {!} … well, i was charmed! Great work!

    I have been a bit of a musicologist wannabe all my life, and your take “knocked it outta the park”! Brilliant! Then i saw your “I Stole a Song” and backed up to this piece! My hat is off to you, sir! Pure genius!

    I’ve made my living as a sound engineer for decades now, and earn much respect and / or ire from telling promulgators of “original” music that their song “sounds exactly like a combination of X and Y”, in detail …

    The delighted ones wonder how i know what they’re listening to, and the angry ones deny any influence at all, as if they grew up on the moon! {Your “Love … and … Flower”, put it right on over the top!}

    Thanks for the reward of your final several paragraphs (from the * on} here at the end of that dark gray rainbow that Mr JD pointed toward!

    I’m so happy to be a “little noise”!

    And thank you! You, sir, Rock! Peace! – jc

  2. Hi man,

    I just found your entry about the open and alternate tunings and the tab of the song A Lion’s Heart. I have been looking for something usefull for an eternity (it feels like) and now am sooo happy, that I finally know how to play a Lion’s Heart. THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting this tab.

    All the best
    pepe

  3. I must respond. I appreciate you enabling me to groove Bob’s on my guitar,by doing some transcription. I am painter, writer, reader, and guitar player. This evening, after long absence from Bob’s art, I am listening for the at least the seventh time today, and that seems like an apt number, in other words going upstairs by the aporia of distress. We must take this man seriously in our most earnest distress. He is an artists artist, and I a very loose artist, doing paintings while drinking, and smoking Salvia Divinorum, what else can those less fortunate than Bob is, because they are too shy to “score” pot on the street, and so I get back to subject of Dignity. I am fired from my job, reading an intellectual history of The French Theorists in the etats unis, in this book some of those mis-mixed went and met and Dylan and Byez in Massachusettes, but the theorists were not too much into pot, and Dylan had never read them. I advise had you ever listened to A Series of Dream. I think one of his greatest on an anthemic level is Dignity, but tonight he is a true sharer of the heart, in, World Gone Wrong, he play devil-may-care with human Dignity

  4. The ultimate question is, why be an inferior human being, why be a person in adoration of a god, there are is no God, nor no gods, only human beings, and I am artist, so is Bob, and he is good company on the stereo in lonely nights, and good to play on the guitar, but let us remember, his high achievement is that of being, and becoming a human being, that is the example he sets, but there are so many of us, human beings, who are all artists, so lets get real, just as real as he “might” be, and just as real as an entire world of art, and ourselves as human beings, though most of us probably lack the talent to play the system on any other grand scale, than the moon in our window at night, i bet once in a while Bob Dylan looks at that, when he is not staring into the lights shining at him on the stage.

  5. Having a Dylan one man revival, just put my DVD of Dylan unplugged, which I like in a certain constant mood, and he is indeed wearing dark sunglasses, which does suggest a certain authentic interiority, but all do that, I do it, with my transition glasses, Bush did it, Obama does it, Shakespeare and Picasso, and Plato, and Derrida, and Marx, and Stalin, and Buddha, and Jesus, and Moses, everyone does it, Dylan simply does it a bit a better and more consistently most, while all the time wearing sun glasses at night, my eyes are always like sunglasses at night when I do my paintings at night.

  6. What I especially like about the unplugged DVD is the band, check out the drummer drumming his dread locks, the mandolin player, I guess I even like Bob’s black and white polka dot shirt, that is as a statement as a man can make.

    And I get to press on 42C7 seems like some sort of internet cosmological singularity, yes, I think i must be beyond the 4 billion years in the future, when Bob is forgotten, in fact we all are forgotten, we can not even remember ourselves, because we are all dead, and the radiation detritus of our super nova star goes speeding to some star our physicists used to call 42C7, going back up to 7, for the 7nth time today.

  7. Just came across your “Last Words on Dignity.” Excellent. Thank you. Can I send you a short story I wrote about Dylan (and almost every major rock lyricist of the last 50 years)? Moshe Morrison

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