A Master Thief
The ‘Borrowings’ of Bob Dylan
By Will Brennan
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." T.S. Eliot, from The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism / Phillip Massinger
It was to be the most important and formative moment of Bob Dylan’s early
life as a songwriter, and, as it turned out, his entire songwriting career. It was January, 1961, the “coldest winter in seventeen years,” and Dylan had just moved to New York City, another one of the ragged minstrels drawn to Greenwich Village seeking their fame and fortune in the burgeoning new folk music scene. Bob had a secondary purpose in mind, however, in his move to New York. It brought him close to New Jersey, where his idol, Woody Guthrie, terminally ill with Huntington’s disease, was staying, at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.
As soon as he got himself settled in New York, Dylan made the trip to New Jersey with some friends, showed up at the hospital and asked to see Guthrie. He was allowed to see Woody, and Dylan talked with his idol, played him songs, and apparently Guthrie, who was severely debilitated, was happy for his young disciple’s company. Guthrie took a liking to Bob and Dylan continued to visit Guthrie periodically. During one of the visits, Woody gave Dylan songwriting advice, advice that would profoundly shape the approach Dylan has used in the art and crafting of songs ever since.
Guthrie told him to steal. He passed on to the impressionable young songwriter the long held folk tradition of taking a song that already exists, changing the melody around a little, putting some new words to it and presto - new song. In
the traveling troubadour days, singers would carry the news from town to town
in the songs they sang, the walking telegraphs or newspapers of the times. Ballads would tell of battles, famous criminals, heroes, iconic romances, and all of it was part of the folkloric stream – songs got passed along this way. Along their travels, the songs were regularly changed by the next troubadour who encountered them – local stories replaced the far-off ones, a different cast of heroes and villains took over the lead roles in the dramas, maybe the songwriter would just change something slightly because he liked it better that way. Over time, like in the game of telephone, the end result ended up being, if not entirely new, at least quite different. Woody Guthrie understood this, that it was a well practiced method
of song creation, and it was this gem of knowledge that he bestowed on Dylan.
Dylan, from his side, was already practiced at stealing. When he was sixteen,
the teenaged Bobby Zimmerman had copied the lyrics of a song of Hank Snow’s, “Little Buddy,” changing a few slightly, and presented it as his own to his camp newsletter. This “original” page of Dylan handwritten lyrics came up for sale recently at Christie’s auction house, until it was discovered that the lyrics were
in fact Hank Snow’s. The song had been recorded by Snow eleven years before Dylan presented it as his own in the camp newsletter, but most of the kids at camp no doubt hadn't heard it. This is a perfect template for his later, more refined practices, where he rescues obscure, forgotten, cast-off material from the past and reclaims it as his own. With a blessing from his mentor to do what he’d already been thinking of, Dylan freely began to use this method from the very beginning - he used it to insure his outbreak as an important songwriter. Bob was just doing what all folk artists historically had done. It made him what he became – many other singers were certainly better and other notable songwriting peers
of Dylan’s were at least as poetic and clever, but they lacked this ace in the hole that he had, which was the complete conviction that is was not only good to absorb then steal, it had the approval of one of the greatest songwriters of the time – it was how Woody did it. Guthrie gave Dylan the blessing to utilize, appropriate and reshape an inexhaustible well of material – every song that had gone before him.
Historically, this was nothing new. Shakespeare based many of his plays on previously written plays or stories, improving on them in his own versions.
The Merchant of Venice is believed to have had its origin in Il Pecorone or The Simpleton, written in 1378 by Giovanni Fiorentino. The device of Portia's suitors choosing a particular casket for her hand in marriage is taken from Gesta Romanorum, a medieval story collection, which was translated by Richard Robinson published in 1577, and was therefore accessible to Shakespeare. There’s also long tradition in art of painters copying the famous works of masters, redoing them in their own style. Good poets, as T.S. Eliot notes above, steal, and make it into something better. This has been Dylan’s ultimate songwriting credo – take whatever’s out there, what’s been tossed aside, forgotten, or hiding in plain sight, and use it. He adapted this approach as he went along, drawing from many different sources, always living up to Eliot’s dictum and doing the original one better, transplanting parts into a more important, more significant, better work than the one they’d come from. Dylan found these gems everywhere – in other songs, in the Bible, in myths, in movies – and like a jeweler, worked them into
new settings, creating masterpieces in the process, songs for the ages.
This series about Dylan's sources and "borrowings" will be an examination of those numerous appropriations, an in-depth look at the sources of music and words that found their way into many of Dylan’s creations, the hundreds of
bits and pieces he’s patched into his vast songbook, and also into his book, “Chronicles.” It's a kind of detective story as well – there are countless trails
to be followed, and trails from those trails, and so on. A single song of Dylan’s, taken apart and studied, can yield a huge cache of annotations, connections, echoes, reverberations – along the way, it becomes like taking a tour through history, through Americana, though our times and times long past. It's something
like following links on the internet, a process which at times can seem endless.
Finally, I would like to stress that this examination of Dylan's usage of other works in his songs - parts of which will be serialized here in Muddy Water -
is not in any way a condemnation of Dylan’s borrowing, recasting and collaging process. It is in fact an appreciation of it. That is, appreciation in the less used sense of the word – to weight the value of. This series will be a detailed study
of this particular aspect of his creation process, a dissection and analysis of the greatest songbook of the 20th and now 21st century. It is the examination of an absolute master, a look into the cluttered, overflowing, fascinating workshop of his mind. That Dylan is a master songwriter is undisputed. He also proves himself to be – within the confines of his songwriting – a master poet, a master collagist,
a master musician, a master of Americana. And a master thief.