Who are these people, and why are they ragging on Bob Dylan? First comes the criticism that he lifted lines from Civil War–era poet Henry Timrod for several of his new songs—a critique that bears resemblance to that which surrounded his 2001 masterpiece, Love and Theft (haters suggested he lifted lines from a Japanese mystery novel). Then, last week, The New York Times reported that the cover art of Dylan's latest album, Modern Times, is the same as Luna's 1995 album, Hedgehog. A quick search on Amazon.com reveals that, sure enough, it's the same. These accusations have brought about endless chatter regarding Dylan's general originality, causing one blogger to deem him a "thieving little swine." Ouch!
But this discourse has brought up an interesting point regarding what level of appropriation is acceptable in today's modern music climate. Singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes, a major Dylan fan, admits that she hasn't yet heard Modern Times. But she still has some fascinating insight.
"When I saw it on the news, I just shrugged," says Sykes. "I wasn't like, 'Oh my God, Dylan's a fraud.' I mean, on our song 'Reckless Burning,' I sang the line 'Goodnight Irene,' which is a Leadbelly line and it's public domain. I didn't credit Leadbelly or anything, but I just figured that would be obvious to anyone in the know."
After reading Sykes a couple of the lyrical similarities between Dylan and Timrod, she still came away torn on the issue.
"I don't want to judge the guy," she says. "But I don't want to defend him, either. It sounds to me like he's taking whole nuggets of this guy's poetry and making them his own. I mean, personally, I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't take a whole line. I've been inspired by couplets before, but never reworked them completely. If it was me, I think I would have said 'inspired by the writings of Henry Timrod' in the liner notes. But I would like to hear what he has to say."
But, naturally, Dylan ain't talkin'.
Still, Sykes notes that what's most important is that Dylan is making albums that continue to challenge the cultural purists, as all his best work has.
"I think there's something about the fact that he's got this record called Modern Times and he's on TV doing iPod and Victoria's Secret commercials," she says. "Yet he's writing lyrics that take us back to this Civil War guy. I think the real answer lies in the irony of all of that."
Dylan is typically precise about his actions. Something tells me his appropriating Timrod was no different. In all this, there are shades of the old T.S. Eliot line: "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." Isn't that precisely what Dylan did when he ran off with Woody Guthrie's shtick all those years ago?