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Saturday, August 01, 2009

This TIME It Is For Reference

Even Dreamtime isn't immune from using the occasional obligatory headline.

Our internet pal and correspondent Scott Warmuth was the man who first broke the news that several lines in the songs of Modern Times were based - sometimes borrowed from - the poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. Scott went on to discover fragments from Ovid, Chaucer and James Joyce in the lyrics of the Together Through Life songs, and has recently looked into Chronicles to see what he could find.

Scott noticed that a phrase in Chronicles referring to Hanoi as the, "brothel-studded Paris of the orient" appeared in quotation marks and wondered where it had been sourced. A little digging uncovered the Friday, March 31, 1961 edition of TIME magazine:

Chronicles, page 87:
"They had turned Hanoi, the capital city, into the 'brothel-studded Paris of the orient.'...The press reported Hanoi was grubby and cheerless, that the people dressed in Chinese shapeless jackets"

TIME, Friday, Mar. 31, 1961
North Viet Nam: Poor Neighbor
"Hanoi, long the brothel-studded 'Paris of the Orient,' is now grubby and cheerless..."

Interesting, but as Scott started to go through that issue of TIME (which can be found on-line here), it got even more interesting. He discovered that Dylan had apparently used that specific issue of the magazine as a reference source for a complete section of Chronicles. Among other things he mentions a glossary of phobias in that issue, "..."There'd be articles about things like new modern-day phobias, all with fancy Latin names...", paraphrases an article titled The Anatomy of Angst, and refers to people and events all covered in that edition of TIME, including Jackie Kennedy and the Cuban Revolutionary Council meeting at the Biltmore Hotel.

You can find a complete list of Scott's discoveries over at Expecting Rain, although I should warn you that as is usual with these cases, there's a turgid and occasionally nasty ongoing battle between those who feel Bob Dylan should be drawn-and-quartered for plagiarism, those who feel that way about Scott for reporting his discovery, and those with a more pragmatic view. I'm on the third side, if it matters. Any careful reading of the section in question shows that either Dylan or his editor very carefully mentions "articles" and "reported in the press," and the line about Hanoi as "brothel-studded" is enclosed in quotes, indeed the very clue that sent Scott off on his research. And I know Scott. His motivations are neither evil nor mercenary. He's simply interested in Dylan's sources, who, God knows, obliges with providing them.

There are many other lines in Chronicles that are better ammo for the "Dylan as magpie" crowd, including phrases that appear borrowed from such sources as Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Raised on Radio by Gerald Nachman, Daily Life in Civil War America by Dorothy and James Volo, as well as works by Jack London, and even potboilers by Sax Rohmer. Ed Cook, over in Washington, D.C., recently noted the parallels between the story Chronicles tells about Sonny Boy Williamson and the story Blues with a Feeling: the Little Walter Story relates about the first Sonny Boy.

Take any random descriptive phrase in Chronicles, run it through Google Books, and the chances are pretty good you'll get a match.

Some might find this awful, some might find it disappointing. Me, I find it interesting, just as I find it interesting that one of the weirder elements of Modern Times, Dylan's shout-out to Alicia Keyes in Thunder on the Mountain, is based on a 19 and 40 Memphis Minnie song found on Queen of the Delta Blues, Vol. 2, Ma Rainey.
I was thinking about Ma Rainey
Wonderin' where Ma Rainey could be

I was thinking about Ma Rainey
Wonderin' where Ma Rainey could be

I've been looking for her
Even been to Tennessee
There are numerous stories of Bob Dylan's "box of words," his apparent equivalent of a commonplace book, a storage bin for lines, phrases, stories, anecdotes that have caught his eye and ear. Thanks to the work of people like Scott, we get a peek inside that box occasionally, and are the richer for it, I think.


Anonymous said...

Wasnt it a reporter from Time mag that Bob totally ripped apart in Dont Look Back???

Marc from said...

I have not followed this ongoing debate in detail but I have a hard time understanding how it can be a problem that the guy is using elements from what he reads in his art. How could you not do it? How whould it be better to carefully refrase everything so that it would not match a Google search? We cannot know anything but what we experience through our lives. Some of that will be in books and magazines. Who knows? Maybe Dylan actually remembers reading that specific issue of Time in 1961. At age 20 he most probably did not have a Time Magazine subscription, so his references should be to a few distinct issues that he might have come across at some occation.

Another point is Dylan's obvious and deliberate intention of having hidden references in his lyrics. Things that many people will not pick up but will make them find his lyrics "mysterious", while others will know that he is making a reference to some specific figure in an old book, movie or song. The easiest of those are probably his many references to the bible. His song are definitely stronger because of all those more or less concealed references.

Marc de Oliveira

Ted said...

Warmuth seem to have a sophomoric concept of originality...people repeat phrases they read all the time, often without even remembering where it came from. I really doubt any book would stand up to his "scrutiny." He has found his little hobby horse, and he will ride it as long as he can. Otherwise he might have to find something meaningful to do with his time.

Anonymous said...

You're being incredibly disingenuous, Ted, if you honestly think that every book, or even most books, contain dozens of lines and phrases that have been lifted wholesale from a single source. Whether it's the Ovid, a copy of some birdcage liner from 1961, or the collected works of Henry Timrod, it really doesn't matter. This sort of blatant thievery is something Dylan has only started to do in the '00s, and it's a disappointing testament to the emerging truth that he has nothing left to say.

Anonymous said...

Dylan mentions in Chronicles that -Dave Van Ronk's girlfriend I think-was 'not just a minor character' a reference to the book by Jack Kerouac's girlfriend Joyce Johnson about the women in his life. I like the way he does things like that-but the jury is still out on whether he can use full lines from other sources as his own

Anonymous said...

"using elements of what he reads in his art"

good lord, what is wrong with you?

Just as he stole from Timrod, he has stolen here

sakilov said...

In his "Shakespeare", Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
'Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality… The greatest genius is the most indebted man.'
BTW, Picasso never said "Small artists copy; great artists steal." (Google!)
See: to those of us who care, there is a quote for every occasion—even false quotes.

Anonymous said...

maybe Bob sould just stop writing
songs and books.that might teach the "dylan lovers" who hop the google train to try to discredit him a lesson!!

Dean Oakwood said...

"Taking information from one source is called plagiarism.

Taking information from many sources is called research."

-Old Central Michigan Michigan Univ. professor of mine.

If they want to, the plagiarists can just throw out the handful of Dylan songs that do have similar lines from other works in history. What is left? Still the greatest collection of songs ever written.