The other day I did a post about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture. While I think it is still a great read and a great listen, in some ways classic Dylan, I have also discovered that some people think he plagiarized at least part of it.
First, in the past when it was pointed out that some of his lyrics and much of his earliest music, seem to be pretty similar to existing works, he pointed out that there was a long tradition in folk music (and jazz) to quote existing works. This is true. Some of his earliest songs work because of these quotes. There are some who think he never did an original thing, that he is complete phony. Of course, I’ve never heard that his classics, like “Blowing in the Wind”, “The Times They are a Changin'”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Positively 4th Street”, or anything off of Highway 61 Revisited are plagiarized in any way. But some think they are all phony and awful.
Here is the issue. Someone noticed that when talking about “Moby Dick”, Bob Dylan made reference to something that wasn’t actually in the book. It was, however, in the SparkNotes online guide to Moby Dick. So people went through it with a fine-tooth comb and found about 20 examples where Dylan seemed to get his material from SparkNotes. Most of it is just, to my eyes, using a word or phrase to describe something, but the NY Times article has a couple of longer sections that are very similar. (Paraphrased from the BBC article, what he might do is use a phrase, such as “predicts doom”; “lust for vengeance”; “embodiment of evil”; that is not in the original but is used by SparkNotes.)
My guess is that Dylan hadn’t read any of the books he referenced in many years and just didn’t feel like reading them (or at least Moby Dick) right then, so he used an online resource to study up on it. I’m a weird person that actually loved Moby Dick, and yet I’d have to do the same thing if I were to write about it. OK, I am not writing a review for the Nobel committee! If I were, I might actually go back and reread it. But just because he used this resource doesn’t mean he has to use some of the same words and phrases to describe things. So was he sloppy? Did he steal it? What?
If you haven’t listened to or read the lecture, do it and then come back. In my opinion, this all sounds like Dylan. He is telling a story of where he got some of his influences. And he got a lot of them in from this book – they are in his lyrics as plain as day. Looking at his interpretation of Moby Dick in this lecture, his use of people’s names as metaphor in many of his songs makes a lot of sense. He might use SparkNotes words to describe parts of the book, but he’s using them to talk about how he saw, and used, the materail of the book. And the way he says it in the lecture, it sounds like Bob Dylan, no matter if he “borrowed” words and phrases here and there. It has his stamp, his style (which many think is false).
I know people who love Bob’s work will look at this and shrug their shoulders. He’s just doing what he’s always done and all is good. Others who don’t like him, or think he shouldn’t have been honored in this way, will point to this and say that he’s just doing what he has always done and all is wrong, he should have the award taken away and he should be held up as an example of plagiarism at its worse.
What do you think?
Note – The whale at the top is a hunchback whale, not a sperm whale like Moby Dick. And, of course, the whale at the top isn’t white. If anyone else has used a non-white non-sperm whale when talking about Moby Dick, I did not intentionally steal from you ;)
However, if my title reminds you of the title of a couple of songs, well….