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Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?

When Woody Guthrie was singing hillbilly songs on a little Los Angeles radio station in the late 1930s, he used to mail out a small mimeographed songbook to listeners who wanted the words to his songs, On the bottom of one page appeared the following:

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

About Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Born Brooklyn, New York as Elliot Charles Adnopoz August 1, 1931 saw his first rodeo watching Gene Autry and the blacklit bulls at Madison Square Garden. Elliot left home at 14 years old, hitched a rig to Washington, DC where he joined the Rodeo and became a cowboy. Eliott said "It ain't where you're from that counts, it's where you're going." Woody and Jack braved the trail to California in 1954.

"I suppose I taught Bobby a few of my songs. Those old VD songs by Woody that nobody wanted the young kids to know, he picked them up from me..."quoted in Robert Shelton, No Direction Home, London 1987, p. 104.

  • VD BLUES (as performed by BOB DYLAN, 1961)
  • VD GUNNER'S BLUES (LANDLADY) (as performed by BOB DYLAN, 1961)
  • VD SEAMAN'S LAST LETTER (from BOB DYLAN's McKenzie manuscripts, 1961)
  • VD WALTZ (as performed by BOB DYLAN, 1961

Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?

By JON PARELES July 12, 2003

An alert Bob Dylan fan was reading Dr. Junichi Saga's "Confessions of a Yakuza" (Kodansha America, 1991) when some familiar phrases jumped out at him. There were a dozen sentences similar to lines from songs on Mr. Dylan's 2001 album, " 'Love and Theft,' " particularly one called "Floater (Too Much to Ask)."

In the book a father is described as being "like a feudal lord," a phrase Mr. Dylan uses. A character in the book says, "I'm not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded"; Mr. Dylan sings, "I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound." Mr. Dylan has neither confirmed nor denied reading the book or drawing on it; he could not be reached for comment, a Columbia Records spokeswoman said.

Bob Dylan exposed as one more plagiarist?

The Wall Street Journal reported the probable borrowings on Tuesday as front-page news. After recent uproars over historians and journalists who used other researchers' material without attribution, could it be that the great songwriter was now exposed as one more plagiarist?

Not exactly. Mr. Dylan was not purporting to present original research on the culture of yakuza, the Japanese gangsters. Nor was he setting unbroken stretches of the book to music. The 16 verses of "Floater" include plenty of material that is not in "Confessions of a Yakuza," although the song's subtitle and its last line — "Tears or not, it's too much to ask" — do directly echo the book. Unlike Led Zeppelin, which thinly disguised Howlin' Wolf's as "The Lemon Song" and took credit for writing it, Mr. Dylan wasn't singing anyone else's song as his own.

He was simply doing what he has always done: writing songs that are information collages. Allusions and memories, fragments of dialogue and nuggets of tradition have always been part of Mr. Dylan's songs, all stitched together like crazy quilts.

Sometimes Mr. Dylan cites his sources, as he did in "High Water (for Charley Patton)" from the " `Love and Theft' " album. But more often he does not. While die-hard fans happily footnote the songs, more casual listeners pick up the atmosphere, sensing that an archaic turn of phrase or a vaguely familiar line may well come from somewhere else. His lyrics are like magpies' nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown.

"Blowin' in the Wind," melody from "No More Auction Block"

Mr. Dylan's music does the same thing, drawing on the blues, Appalachian songs, Tin Pan Alley, rockabilly, gospel, ragtime and more. "Blowin' in the Wind," his breakthrough song, took its melody from an antislavery spiritual, "No More Auction Block," just as Woody Guthrie had drawn on tunes recorded by the Carter Family. They thought of themselves as part of a folk process, dipping into a shared cultural heritage in ways that speak to the moment.

internet | COPYRIGHT

The hoopla over " `Love and Theft' " and "Confessions of a Yakuza" is a symptom of a growing misunderstanding about culture's ownership and evolution, a misunderstanding that has accelerated as humanity's oral tradition migrates to the Internet. Ideas aren't meant to be carved in stone and left inviolate; they're meant to stimulate the next idea and the next.

Because information is now copied and transferred more quickly than ever, a panicky reaction has set in among corporations and some artists who fear a time when they won't be able to make a profit selling their information (in the form of music, images, movies, computer software). As the Internet puts a huge shared cultural heritage within reach, they want to collect fees or block access. Amazingly enough, some musicians want to prevent people from casually listening to their music, much less building new tunes on it.

internet | FAIR USE

Companies with large copyright holdings are also hoping to whittle away the safe harbor in copyright law called fair use, which allows limited and ambiguously defined amounts of imitation for education, criticism, parody and other purposes. The companies also want to prevent copyrighted works from entering the public domain, where they can be freely copied and distributed. The Supreme Court recently ruled, in Eldred v. Ashcroft, that individual copyrights could extend for 70 years after the life of the creator, or in the case of a corporation, for 95 years. As a result, Mickey Mouse will be kept out of the public domain — that shared cultural heritage — until 2024.

The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression. Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery — that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve. It's a process that is neatly summed up in Mr. Dylan's album title " `Love and Theft,' " which itself is a quotation from a book on minstrelsy by Eric Lott.


Hip-hop, ever in the vanguard, ran into problems in the mid-1980's when the technique of sampling — copying and adapting a riff, a beat and sometimes a hook or a whole chorus to build a new track — was challenged by copyright holders demanding payment even for snippets. Although sampling was just a technological extension of the age-old process of learning through imitation, producers who use samples now pay up instead of trying to set precedents for fair use.

That might be a good idea; a song that recycles a whole melody (like Puff Daddy's productions) calls for different treatment than a song that borrows a few notes from a horn section, and courts are not the best place for aesthetic distinctions. But in practice, it means fewer samples per track, and it can make complex assemblages prohibitively expensive. Mixes heard only in clubs and bootleg recordings are now the outlets for untrammeled sampling experiments. Yet, samples have extended and revived careers for many musicians when listeners went looking for the sources.

Mr. Dylan has apparently sampled "Confessions of a Yakuza," remixing lines from the book into his own fractured tales of romance and mortality on " `Love and Theft.' " The result, as in many collages and sampled tracks, is a new work that in no way affects the integrity of the existing one and that only draws attention to it.

Dr. Saga has no need to keep his book isolated. He told The Associated Press that he was ecstatic to have inspired such a well-known songwriter. And as news of the Dylan connection surfaced, sales of "Confessions of a Yakuza" jumped. Yesterday it was No. 117 among the best-selling books at, and No. 8 among biographies and memoirs.

Of course, Dr. Saga can't be too possessive about the writing. The book is an oral history, told to him by the yakuza gangster of the title. It's another story that has drifted into humanity's oral tradition. Mr. Dylan's complete lyrics are freely available at As for the song, if someone asks Mr. Dylan for sampling rights, it would be only fair to grant them.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company