Don’t tell me nothing about nothing

September 14th, 2006 → 7:56 am @ // No Comments

For two or three years now, I’ve found myself using the verb “freckled” to descibe a series of marks on someone’s body, or a landscape, or a building; just this week, I described a woman’s body as being “freckled with cigarette burns.” I had no recollection of where or why I first started using this construction…at least until this week, when I happened to be reading through “Jimmy’s World,” Janet Cooke’s made-up story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer in 1980. Cooke, a writer possessed of an occasional flair for imagery even if she was a bit deficient in the honesty department, used this exact construction to describe Jimmy’s arms as being “freckled” with track marks. I must have picked this up three years ago, when I was writing about Jayson Blair and other journalistic scandals.

My nod of the cap was accidental; many others are intentional. You could fill a library with the books that are run through with homages to Moby Dick. You practically need a reference book to appreciate fully “Ulysses” or Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and that would have a whole section on the ways in which Pynchon specifically alluded to Joyce. Jonathan Coe’s “The Winshaw Legacy, or, What a Carve Up” draws explicitly from the 1962 movie of the same name, and the text of his book contains numerous in-jokes that 99% of readers will never get: sentences, phrases, descriptions drawn from other sources. (Coe has a term for this; unfortunately, my copy of “Winshaw” was borrowed and had not yet been returned; that’s why I hate lending out books.)

In today’s Times, Motoko Rich has an article on the front page of the Arts section titled, “Who’s This Guy Dylan Borrowing From Henry Timrod?” Dylan is, of course, Bob; Timrod is a 19th century Civil War poet. The nut graf: “It seems that many of the lyrics on that album [Dylan’s just-released “Modern Times”]…bear some strong echoes to the poems of Timrod.” To wit, Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down”: “More frailer than the flowers / These precious hours.” Nimrod’s “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”: “A round of precious hours / Oh! here, where in the summer noon I based / And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.” There are a handful of other examples as well — in “Spirit On the Water” and “Workingman’s Blues” — but even in their totality, they don’t account for many of the lyrics on the album. (Rich doesn’t acknowledge the allusion to the Grateful Dead, a band with which Dylan toured, in the song’s title. “Deal,” in fact, has a line — “Don’t you let that deal go down” — that seems to be an allusion to the old folk song of the same name. I certainly wouldn’t put it past Dylan to refer to a song that referred to a song in order to comment ever-so-obliquely on a past brouhaha. But more about that in the next graf.)

This isn’t the first time fans have found striking similarities between Mr. Dylan’s lyrics and the words of other writers. (Oops: that’s actually Rich’s line.) Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal published a scolding article comparing passages from Dylan’s “Love and Theft” to Japanese writer Junichi Saga’s gangster novel, “Confessions of a Yakuza.” The “Yakusa” story became a mini-contretemps, with more than a few headline writers borrowing from Dylan’s oevre for inspiration (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Well There Ain’t No Use to Sit and Wonder Why”).

There’s a small chance, at least in the Timrod case, that Timrod’s phrase simply lodged in Dylan’s mind, something that’s happened to both my mother and me. (My mom once realized a line from one of her poems came from a short story she’d read nearly twenty years earlier.) It’s more likely that Dylan was purposefully nodding to Timrod, a sly tip of the cap that only the select few — 19th century Civil War buffs and poetry junkies — would even have a chance of picking up on in. (The letters for “Nimrod” are contained within “Modern Times,” which, coincidentally, is the title of a Charlie Chaplin classic. From the Civil War poet to an ironic artist’s statement on modernization to perhaps the most important folk artist of the 20th century…) Rich, to her and the Times‘s credit, doesn’t overplay her story (although the article does bring up the talentless plagiarizer Kaavya Viswanathan); let’s hope the rest of the media world follows suit.

Post Categories: Bob Dylan & New York Times & Plagiarism

4 Comments → “Don’t tell me nothing about nothing”

  1. crimsonohsix

    17 years ago

    How Bob Dylan Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life?


  2. deversm

    17 years ago

    Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent piece about “borrowing” that covers it from the musical side. It starts off about a play but comes around to music. It’s lengthy, but well worth the read.


  3. archie

    17 years ago

    Sugar Baby on L & T is a total lift: melody and several lyrics. The 1920’s song written by a man named Austin, “Lonesome Road”, which has been covered by Sinatra and Van Morrison (seperately). I’m getting tired of people defending blatant artist plagiarism. As Auden said, it is the poet’s duty to “make language new”.


  4. kapz

    16 years ago

    Seth, the problem is you are using one word – freckles. Dylan apparently is plagiarizing lines and phrases in more than just one song. Add to that his fascination with civil war history and the poet timrod and its tough to come to any other conclusion.


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