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 RaineyThere 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.
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