Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The New Dylan

I’ve only heard bits and pieces of the new Dylan album. What’s intrigued me most is the flak he’s getting over having lifted a bunch of lines from an obscure Confederate poet named Henry Timrod, who is pictured above. The most thorough listing of Dylan’s borrowings that I’ve seen is in a comment by a man named Paul in this Zoilus thread. (This was also the first I’d heard of Timrod.)

The discovery has altered perceptions of Dylan’s achievement. My own take has long been that he’s one of the all-time great singers, a master of phrasing on a par with Billie Holiday or Sinatra or Willie Nelson, and a brilliant phrase-maker but spotty songwriter, with flashes of great lines studding scores of mixed-bag songs (as well as the occasional all-the-way-through gem). What does it mean when he plagiarizes the great lines? In a persuasive, lively, perceptive, and very positive review of Dylan’s new one in “Slate,” Jody Rosen praised Dylan’s “own brilliant and uncanny poetry” for lines it turned out he stole from Timrod, as well as one he lifted from the 19th century minstrel Daniel Emmett and another from the Delta blues man Robert Johnson. Less than half of the lines that Jody singles out are borrowed (as far as we know), but the revelation complicates things.

Suzanne Vega got it right in this terrific op-ed in Sunday’s “New York Times”: stealing lines is not part of the “folk process,” but there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you acknowledge what you’re doing, which Dylan will never do, because, as Vega says, he’s never pretended to be a nice guy. Explaining things is bad for mystique, and Dylan has always been about maintaining mystique.

In my own songwriting, I steal lines too, and this brouhaha has reminded me of the need to note my borrowings (see the comment on the song “Apocalyplse Again”). Lifting lines is not to my knowledge (or Suzanne Vega’s) part of the folk tradition, but it is part of blues tradition (a great line like “he’s got a handful of gimme and a mouth full of much obliged” is in at least two unrelated songs), and it is also a long-gone pop tradition dating back to the time when educated people were expected to have read more of the same things. The Ink Spots hit “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” stole its title from Longfellow. When the song was written, most high school kids in the country had read Longfellow.

Very few people had heard of Henry Timrod before last week. Here are his poems. Suitable for modern times.

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Elsewhere in Blogville:

Peli Grietzer shares his fiery and always pleasurable-to-read observations on poetry, poetics, song, and culture from the Second Balcony.

I’ve been digging my virtual friend Corndog’s blog and its predecessor for quite a while now; more recently I’ve been getting into his melodic, energetic, and keenly observed songs, and I “listen forward” to hearing more.

"Bad artists copy. Great artists steal."

- Pablo Picasso
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