Dylan Plagiarizes SparkNotes: The Jokerman Strikes Again

Oh this is all so delicious. As we reported earlier, Slate has made a pretty compelling case that Bob Dylan lifted parts of his Nobel Speech from an online CliffsNotes service. The story looks like it’s going viral, and the Dylan haters are out in full force, cackling about the failings of this Baby Boomer God. What they don’t realize is that the joke is on them – on all of us, really. I think Bobby’s just having a little fun at the expense of those who would idolize him, something he’s been doing for over fifty years, and he’s also making a point about the creative process at the same time.

Bob Dylan has consistently rejected any attempts to put him on some kind of pedestal. It has always been it ain’t me babe, I’m not here, don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters. He has always claimed that all he has ever done is re-interpret existing musical and literary traditions in a new way that happened to connect with a lot of people, no big deal. Adulation always made him uncomfortable, so one can imagine how being given the Nobel Prize for Literature must have completely freaked him out.

He had to know his speech would be parsed to the extreme, and that people would discover some similarities with the SparkNotes text. He’s probably wondering what the hell took so long. With this subtle gambit Dylan not only gets to confound his fans once again, he also manages to take a swipe at those who would bestow upon him the Nobel Prize for Literature in the first place. Bob Dylan is not about to cede control of his own mythology to anyone, so the partially-plagiarized speech serves as a gentle fuck you to them, too.

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A large portion of Dylan’s 21-minute speech is devoted to his synopses of three works of literature he singles out as influencing him: Moby-Dick, The Odyssey, and All Quiet On The Western Front. The parts of the speech in question are contained in his description of the novel Moby-Dick. In his strange, marbly-mouthed drawl that sounds like an amalgam of 6 different regional accents, Dylan delivers these synopses like a high-school senior’s book review, desperately trying to make a connection between himself and Literature for his host’s benefit.

He’s much more convincing – compelling is a better word – when he talks about his own songwriting inspiration. Again, we are talking about Dylan confirming his own mythology in his own words. He tells again the story of going to see a Buddy Holly performance as a teenager when “out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills. I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down.”

Now that’s how you construct your own mythology, the guy’s been doing it his whole life. These are the important parts of the speech, and it is almost as if he is saying that much of his songwriting came from a place other than literature. Consider this passage when he spoke about how Leadbelly inspired him to discover America’s folk music tradition:

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

I’m no expert in literature, but I do know that what Dylan describes here is what the Rock Music Revolution has been all about. It has always been, and will always be, about taking what others have done before and making “it all connect and move with the current of the day.” Maybe Dylan’s whole point was that any artistic expression will always include some “borrowing” from others, and that the speech itself was Exhibit “A”. Clever guy that Bobby D.

Photo: By Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz (Bob Dylan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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