Dylan’s speech, or Black and white lovers

Bob Dylan has once again been accused of plagiarism. This time though it’s not about his lyrics but rather about the acceptance speech he recently delivered to the Nobel Prize Committee just before the deadline that, if he had missed it, would have disqualified him from receiving the prize money. The manner in which it was done – procrastinated and procrastinated, content possibly copied from the summary/study website SparkNotes – “rais[es] the delicious prospect that, like any teenager in a band, he cribbed his homework off the internet in a last-minute panic.” (That lovely quote from Mark Savage’s BBC article linked to above – no plagiarizing here!)

Dylan, as we all know, has been accused of plagiarism before (see Nick’s posts here and here for some interesting takes), and he has defended himself (of sorts) by pointing to the fact that he has simply been working within the confines of folk music; and this is very true. I’m a longtime fan of the genre and my collection speaks to how artists, often in personal contact with one another, flowed and moved in and out of each others’ work, blurring lines and behaving now generously, now underhandedly, but always there in the heart of the music, the ethos, the movement or cause. Folk reached its peak in another time and generation and the thinking and the approaches taken were quite different then.

My own feel on all this is to question how much it really matters. I’m not sure if Dylan’s work actually deserves any literary prizes (let alone the Nobel), but he is a musician, and what is most important there is surely delivery, rhythm, melody. I saw Dylan in concert once a few years back and his delivery was terrible. It was automatic, emotionless, an exercise in paint by the numbers with Dylan behaving like a wind-up monkey toy mindlessly banging his cymbals together. The back-up band was fantastic but we were all there to see Dylan and he did disappoint. Yet in looking at the big picture that was just one concert in Osaka; what he has left on record have been and will remain treasures in my life, and for that I am extremely grateful to him.

And what has remained in Dylan’s own life? Evidently foremost amongst his individual treasures are Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. Why those three books? Well, why not? For whatever reason or reasons they spoke to him in a manner that goes beyond however they are or are not later described, leaving indelible marks on the spirit that he has carried through life. Surely that is what is of consequence, what carries significance for him as a reader, and indeed, for you and I too as readers in our own ways and on our own journeys.

Plagiarism is of course a very serious offense and I don’t mean to downplay that. But in his Nobel acceptance speech Dylan paid honor to three great books that acted as both catalysts for his development and as shapers of that development. In this case, at least, that is what strikes me as being most pertinent. His lyrics are another matter, and if it is or could be definitively found that he directly took them, or parts of them, from other uncredited sources then perhaps a more damning judgment could be made (ought to be made?). But even there again there are other considerations involved, and a part of those is the necessity of rolling one’s perspective back to an earlier era and different way of doing things. That does not mean that we justify all that happened in the past just by saying “that’s how it was then”, but it does mean that we admit that the situation is more complicated than a (purer) modern take might allow. Dylan loved and loves those three books – as writers we can only hope to leave a tiny portion of such marks on those who pay us heed by reading our works. Will anyone love the black and white we’ve put on paper and/or screen? Will anyone talk about it later in life? And if they do how will we react to what is said? For my part I hope it’s with grace and pleasure.

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  1. Nick Cody
    Posted June 21, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post, Andrew! I didn’t catch this in the news. But it certainly looks like the contemporary Dylan’s MO. To me, by now, it’s kind of obvious that he’s playing a game. Being no-so-secretly provocative by using (referencing?) others’ work and putting his name on it. The French artist Duchamp had the same provocative streak when he put a urinal in an art exhibit and called it Fountain. The jist is, “I’m going to get away with a grand hoodwink, keep my poker face, and get away with it.” The herd will applaud me. According to Roger Shattuck, it’s a long-standing tradition in French culture. “Mischief” has a synonym for leader in it. But that’s the Jokerman for ya.

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted June 22, 2017 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks Nick. It’s hard to guess about people’s motivations, isn’t it? I think in this instance it could just have been that he wanted to have something to say about those books and checked the net (for me the important thing being that it was those books that stayed with him). With his lyrics though, who knows? It could be a game, it could be an approach. As I noted, he did come out of a subculture where it didn’t really matter. You heard or read something somewhere once, and then… Recently the complicating factors of age could simply be a part of it too. For my part I still really enjoy his old records, especially the first seven. I have mixed feelings about him otherwise.

  3. Nick Cody
    Posted June 23, 2017 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    It’s not just the lyrics. Google Dylan and Asia series paintings. He took famous photographs and copied them point-for-point in his paintings. I couldn’t care less, but I also can’t help but seeing pure gumption and mischief in his moves. The alternative is that the legendary Bob Dylan has nothing of his own to say about books that are supposedly very meaningful to him. He truly needs SparkleNotes to say something about Moby Dick? I don’t think so. I think he’s saying something with SparkleNotes, but it’s not about Moby Dick.

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