Bob Dylan’s Tempest: Wussies and Pussies and Judas, Oh My!
In an interview with Mikal Gilmore in the current Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan defends himself against fresh accusations of plagiarism, offering cranky-old-man quotes like, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me… All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
Although the interview circles around the release of Dylan’s latest collection, the presciently titled Tempest, the “appropriating” claims are, as Dylan says, nothing new. When he first hit the coffeehouses in the early 60s, the folk cognoscenti derided him as “the Woody Imitator,” ridiculing the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman as a Woody Guthrie wannabe (yet they were, to a person, loathe to follow him onstage). Plus, the melodies of early Dylan classics “A Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” are remarkably similar to public domain folk songs (Child ballad “Lord Randall” and Negro spiritual “No More Auction Block,” respectively).
In recent years, Dylan appears to have blithely courted similar controversy. Starting with 2006’s Modern Times, he returned to the age-old form of proto-sampling (what Pete Seeger referred to as “song joining”) arguing for his place among old school troubadours treating extant, sometimes ancient, material like stem cells, incorporating a melody here, a line there, a rhythm here, to create something fresh. Modern Times, in fact, uses no fewer than nine existing compositions to create new songs, all credited to “Bob Dylan.”
As in the 60s, Dylan does not contest the fact that he sources previous tunes for ideas. “You have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he told the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.” Or, in response to Gilmore’s questions about Civil War poet Henry Timrod’s work, lines of which Dylan freely used on Modern Times, Dylan explains his borrowing as a way of “invoking” the sampled artist: “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla.”
In any case, Dylan has never held the concepts of law and order or propriety in high esteem, and that’s why we like him. To quote Dylan himself, from “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Ironically, this line is, in all likelihood, lifted from the 1958 film The Lineup: “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.”
Meanwhile, the lyrically rich, critically lauded Tempest, which references/invokes/appropriates John Lennon (“Roll On, John”), the Mississippi Sheiks, and Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, careens into the marketplace like a beloved, drunken great uncle, who, regardless of what he’s saying, demands to be heard and, in the middle of the modern-day chaos, commands attention like an elemental force.