- 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 “Killing Floor” 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.
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.
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.
This also gives some perspective to the current copyright debate – clearly we have gone too far in protecting the commercial rights of creators, leaving culture the porrer for it.