New York Times – Op-Ed Contributor
The Ballad of Henry Timrod
I AM passionate about Bob Dylan. As a songwriter, I find there is nothing like singing “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” It is nearly eight minutes of cascading images, rich language and the coolest, most unexpected metaphors. My synapses light up in little fireworks, making connections they don’t get to make in ordinary life.
So I read with curiosity about the similarities between some lyrics on his new album and the verses of a forgotten Civil War-era poet. Who is Henry Timrod? Is it true that Mr. Dylan has been borrowing from his poetry? I ran out and bought the CD — not downloading it, because I wanted the lyric booklet. I wanted to see the evidence. And, of course, I discovered that he includes no lyrics in the CD package. No words at all, not even liner notes. Bob isn’t making this easy.
It’s modern to use history as a kind of closet in which we can rummage around, pull influences from different eras, and make them into collages or pastiches. People are doing this with music all the time. I hear it in, say, Christina Aguilera’s new album, or in the music of Sufjan Stevens.
So I had an open mind when approaching this Dylan album — which is called “Modern Times,” by the way. Does this method of working extend to a lyric? To a metaphor? To Bob Dylan’s taking an exact phrase from some guy we never heard of from the middle of the 19th century without crediting him? That’s what I needed to satisfy myself about.
For example, recently I saw a poem on the subway that startled me. It is by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi.
One of my own songs says:
I’d like to meet you
In a timeless, placeless place
Somewhere out of context
And beyond all consequences
I won’t use words again
They don’t mean what I meant
They don’t say what I said
They’re just the crust of the meaning
With realms underneath
Never even moved through.
Rumi’s poem says:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn’t make any sense.
(Jelaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273. Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks and John Moyne, from “The Essential Rumi,” published by HarperCollins. Copyright ©1995 by Coleman Barks. Reprinted with the permission of Coleman Barks. M.T.A. New York City Transit in cooperation with the Poetry Society of America. Poetry in Motion® is a registered trademark of M.T.A. New York City Transit and the Poetry Society of America.)
Sorry for that chunk of text right there, but I want to make sure everyone is credited properly.
So, I sat on the subway staring at the words, wondering — how did that happen? I had never even heard of Rumi, and I thought the resonance of ideas was a remarkable coincidence. I felt vaguely guilty and wondered if I should be paying royalties to someone.
But back to Bob Dylan. Is it part of the “folk process” to lift a few specific metaphors or phrases whole from someone else’s work? I really don’t think it is. Being influenced by a text and reworking it is not the same as directly quoting, which is what he has done here.
Still, Bob Dylan doesn’t have to steal from anybody. Go into any club that still has hoot night, and you will hear someone at the mike stealing from Bob Dylan. His singing and writing style is one of the most influential and recognizable of the last century. And the phrases that he lifted were only details in the scope of this new album.
Did he do this on purpose? I doubt it. Maybe he has a photographic memory, and bits of text stick to it. Maybe it shows how deeply he had immersed himself in the texts and times of the Civil War, and he was completely unconscious of it. These days if a sample of music is taken, you have to acknowledge the original artists and pay them. (See: “Tom’s Diner.”) Shouldn’t the same courtesy be extended to all intellectual property? In other words, is he really “a thieving little swine” as one “fan” puts it?
Well, I guess he is. But I am trying to imagine a Bob Dylan album with footnotes, asterisks, ibid.’s and nifty little anecdotes about the origins of each song. It’s not going to happen. He’s never pretended to be an academic, or even a nice guy. He is more likely to present himself as, well, a thief. Renegade, outlaw, artist. That’s why we are passionate about him.
Suzanne Vega is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter.