Approximately Plagiarism Blues Again Mama
by Django Jones
OK, so Bob Dylan’s been pretty much untouchable all these years. The great songwriter poet compassionate man of causes surrealist architect of free association in song peerless crafter of massive classics, the last performer onstage at the multi-star benefit concert, the man even giant figures like Tom Waits get nervous around. He’s always both dodged and accepted his god-like status – come on, it’s obvious that he likes it, even though he hates it. He’s been at the top of the mountain for so long nobody’s ever considered that he’d ever be anywhere else. And yet, now here’s Joni Mitchell, who’s apparently in ill-health and maybe slightly irritable, taking pot-shots at a man who she’s toured with and has talked about numerous times with respect and admiration.
It’s a simple case of shattered illusion. Allegations of plagiarism, that nastiest of words in the realm of respectability in writing rears its insidious little head and finally there’s something that can be thrown at Dylan and it’ll stick. He’s not a direct channel to the muses of eternity after all, he’s just a clever crafter of tunes who steals ideas left and right and patches them together, polishes them up and puts them out there to bamboozle the crowd – make them think they’re hearing something new when it’s just recycled old stuff he dug out of the musty, cluttered forgotten attic of America. And he’s been doing it for close to fifty years, with enormous success.
So far, so good. You can hear the gasps of disbelief out there among the marginally informed masses that comprise our expansive and overrated country. “Dylan? Stealing lyrics and music? Why? I thought he was a genius.” The slow minds around the water cooler can’t comprehend the duality and figure, “Hey, must be true. Oh, well, I never liked his voice much anyway.”
Moving forward into the realm of the more adequately informed, his defenders have leapt up on blogs and bulletin boards and comments boxes across the internet like so many barking dogs guarding their home. They defend him staunchly and cite his methods as being time honored and accepted within the realm of music and they say that using his sources cleverly is what makes him a genius. This is true.
I was listening to Hubert Sumlin the other day. Hubert, for the water cooler crowd, was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist and the man who Jimi Hendrix closely studied in learning the guitar. Hendrix’s licks can be heard in Sumlin’s work, some practically note for note copies that Jimi took and added his own astonishing technique and flair. But the template was already there. Similarly, Eric Clapton plays one of Albert King’s solos note for note on Cream’s "Strange Brew." Clapton hasn’t tried to hide the fact, he admits that one of the reasons he played in Cream, which to him was a pop group and not authentic to the blues, was that he’d get to play Albert King licks for the masses. This is a way of carrying on a great artists work, a real homage to them – popularizing something that would never be heard by most listeners. This is at the heart of what Dylan does and has done all through his career. He loves his source material – that’s why he steals it. He honors the treasures he’s scavenged from the forgotten roadside, what America thinks of as useless junk, old hillbilly songs, raggedy blues, which sadly and astonishingly, young black musicians and listeners seem to have no use for, a huge heritage of musical riches that are blindingly original and real and hard core, grittier than the most def rap, gigantic in their influence and saturation into the culture of today, but you wouldn’t know that from what you hear in popular black music these days, there’s very little recognition. Dylan’s carrying on of the blues and folk traditions has been heroic in that respect. He has stood for decades and made offerings to the clueless of America to try to steer them back in the direction of what they ought to be remembering and discovering for themselves. He’s played the part of museum curator, where he’s presented exhibits for the public, telling them, “Here’s where it all came from, can’t you see?” But he’s never been one to do it in stiff or reverential way – he loves the music too much for that. So Dylan’s done it with the wink of an eye and a conjurors’ sleight of hand. “I’m not gonna make it that easy for you… maybe if you have to do a little of the work yourself, you’ll understand it all better.” Which has happened. Because of the research into Dylan’s source material, listeners discover the countless steams of music and song that make up the vast, intricately connected waterways of American music. It all flows one into the other and off somewhere else into new rivers and streams and you can’t even say where one song begins or ends but it sure is something, isn’t it, the journey along these many many rivers, a stream of discovery that never ends.
That’s the job Dylan’s done. If you want to call it plagiarism, well… the only reason I can see for that is to make you feel superior. To what, exactly, I don’t know.