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Bob Dylan wars

Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard takes a run at Bob Dylan and his fans here, on the occasion of the singer’s recently-released Christmas album. He calls us fans, “the battered wives of the music industry,” and, in an even more vivid image, compares us to “Baby Huey dolls, those inflatable figures with the big red nose and the rounded bottom, weighted so that when you punch them — punch hard, punch with all your might — they bounce right back, grinning the same frozen, unchangeable grin.” This because Dylan allegedly holds his fans in such contempt and will not hesitate to dump the most awful recordings and live performances on them.

Ferguson is a facile writer with a knack for the biting dig. He certainly lands a few solid blows, and the many detesters of Dylan will undoubtedly be heartened by all his invective.

I can do no better in response to this than Sean Curnyn of Right Wing Bob. I would put heavy emphasis on the particularly unfortunate fact that Ferguson chose this album — all the royalties of which, you may recall, Dylan has announced will be given to hunger-related charities — to run the singer down for cupidity. It is also peculiar that he arraigns the man for publishing his songs “under the auspices of the particularly ruthless copyright enforcer BMI,” without ever taking a moment to notice the many Dylan tunes that have been adapted and released very successfully by other musicians. To adduce just a couple examples: Jimi Hendrix, U2 and Dave Matthews Band have all released acclaimed versions of “All Along the Watchtower”; Johnny Cash and June Carter recorded a rendition of “It Ain’t Me Babe” that may well be more famous than Dylan’s original; and the Grateful Dead frequently played covers of Dylan tunes, often hilariously botching the complicated lyrics. A friend of mine who has seen countless Grateful Dead shows says there were times when the listener could be forgiven for thinking he mistakenly wandered into the wrong concert.

One thing we can be sure of: people will continue to love and hate Bob Dylan.

Comments (11)

Trying to lure Frank over for the weekend, I see. :-)

Andrew Ferguson is a thin man.

I had considered pointing this article out to you (I read it a couple weeks ago in print), but didn't want to tarnish your illusions - or ruin your Christmas.

When you say, "It is also peculiar that he arraigns the man for publishing his songs 'under the auspices of the particularly ruthless copyright enforcer BMI...'", then go on to point out "the many Dylan tunes that have been adapted and released very successfully by other musicians," you lose Ferguson's point, which is much more serious:

Multiple instances of plagiarism, for example, have been hinted at, then proved, then waved away with lit-crit clichés...without apology he cashes the royalty checks from songs that depend on lyrics that aren't his and melodies he didn't write...To cite the most lucrative instance, Dylan copied the tune of "Blowin' in the Wind" from an old spiritual called "No More Auction Block"...But Bob filed ownership rights over the melody, and it has been a favorite of elevator-music programmers for nearly half a century. He has a big house in Malibu to show for it, with ocean views. No telling what the real tunewriter got for thinking it up.

to William L.: You pass on this nasty accusation about a fellow human being - then give one rather lame example - by the way, the example you chose is a legal practice that has been widespread in the music industry since copyrights became law- when a tune is in public domain [because the author is anonymous, dead and/or beyond the seventy five year copyright limitation, usually all three] the modern artist who records a unique version of the tune then copyrights it under his/her name otherwise the artist would get no remuneration for it...

but bearing false witness seems to be A-okay on the web and in our sound bite culture - thanks for illustrating so perfectly "What's Wrong with the World" - I'll be washing out the taste of that one for a while...lol....Merry Christmas...

Yes, it is a nasty accusation. It may even be a false accusation. I pointed it out because Paul didn't. You can take your false witness and shove it where your Merry Christmas don't shine. I will agree that Dylan is "a fellow human being."

William Luse,

You repeated the accusation, labeled it a serious point, and gave no acknowledgment that the accusation might be false. Repeating such accusations without basis raises the issue of bearing false witness, as Melinda appropriately noted. All your reply to Melinda proves is that you are not only dishonest, but incapable of civilized discourse.

Oh, come, Fitz & co. Perhaps some of what Ferguson said there was one of the "solid blows" Paul had in mind in the main post. I wouldn't know. I'm as ignorant about Bob Dylan as it is possible to be. But all Bill Luse was doing was pointing out that the writer's _accusation_ against Dylan is more serious than the _discussion_ in the main post might be taken to indicate. He merely was indicating an interest in seeing the serious nature of the accusation acknowledged, given that if it is true, it deserves to be known. That's it. I don't see him at all implying that it is true, and if there were any question of his implying that, he clarified it in his last comment. He said it is indeed nasty and might be false.

People have this thing about "bearing false witness." Let's use the phrase more sparingly. If someone is "bearing false witness" here, I assume it would be Ferguson. Bill was merely making a rhetorical and argumentative point that something potentially important had not been noticed.

Chill, Fitz et. al.

These Dylan fans are hardcore. I wonder if Rodak's gnashing his teeth against the cyber fence about now.

Curnyn addresses the plagiarism point quite thoughtfully in his response to Ferguson. Here is a portion of his argument:

Ferguson repeatedly seems upset that Dylan makes his living from his occupation, although he offers no examples of Dylan suing anyone to prevent them from using the odd line of his without credit or royalty. (Suffice it to say, Bob’s lawyers would be quite busy.) Again, if using phrases from the works of others in his songs is a disqualifier, then Dylan is utterly disqualified, and was a long time ago. If, however, it is not a disqualifier, then listeners and critics will have to make up their own minds as to where and whether some line is crossed in the practice. Dylan has talked some about this, but has not been asked about it in recent interviews, which is a pity, because the question certainly should be asked in the light of the many obscure discoveries that the age of Google-searching has enabled. However, in an interview in the mid-1980s he talked about carrying a notebook with him at all times and jotting down overheard lines and phrases which interested him and which he could later work into his songs. On his 1985 album Empire Burlesque several of the songs were eventually discovered to include lines from films, in particular ones starring Humphrey Bogart. From The Maltese Falcon we had You wanna talk to me / Go ahead and talk along with I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble. These lines were used in Tight Connection To My Heart and Seeing The Real You At Last, respectively. Yet, when these things were discovered, the reaction was one of interest and amusement, rather than outraged ejaculations of “Plagiarism!” No one felt that Dylan was creating his own imitation “Maltese Falcon” from these lines and absconding with the royalties. Rather, he was integrating these lines into works which stood by themselves and moved listeners in ways varied and genuine. Tight Connection To My Heart has been heard and can resonate strongly as one of the many examples of Dylan’s dialogue (post-gospel era) with the Lord. Seeing The Real You At Last could even be heard in a similar way, albeit from a more irreverent angle, or simply as a galvanizing and fun put-down of a deceptive human lover. (The way in which Dylan’s songs can maintain an integrity on multiple levels simultaneously is a large part of the reason that some of us hold his work in such high regard.) Taking phrases from a poet, Henry Timrod, cuts closer to the bone, of-course, as compared with phrases from a screenwriter’s work. Yet, in a song like When The Deal Goes Down (which also can be heard as a poignant poem to God) Dylan may have incorporated some turns of phrase from Timrod but still can’t be said to have recreated that Civil-War era poet’s work under his own name. The song stands as a distinct work, moving to listeners on its own terms. While the revelations of various kinds of cribbed phrases do disquiet fans — and Dylan shouldn’t have some kind of carte blanche for such practices — the bottom line for most tends to remain whether out of all of this he creates songs that do move listeners on their own terms. It was true of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, and it is true of When The Deal Goes Down. Ferguson, we can take it, is completely unmoved, by any of it.

I think this is an intelligent dilation on the subject. Curnyn's command of Dylan's full body of work, as well as all the literature surrounding it, exceeds what mine will ever be (I love Dylan, but I ain't gonna spend a lot of time digging through the tomes that aging hippies have written about him); so in a word, I'm probably not qualified to evaluate this. But then again, judging by his brisk and snarky approach, neither is Ferguson.

I can't imagine having a "command of Dylan's full body of work".

neither is Ferguson.

If Ferguson thinks there's anything to the plagiarism charge, he should have offered more evidence than the copyrighting of one tune. It's not the kind of accusation one ought to hurl in passing.

To my ear the tune of Auction Block is hardly identical to that of Blowin in the Wind, though there's definitely a resemblance, in some versions more than others. I don't know that it would suffice to establish copyright infringement in court.

I wrote about Ferguson's Dylan piece a few weeks ago:


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