Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides

By Stephen Pate – 4th in the series. Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks square off, the historian versus the poetry scholar. The previous and 3rd article in the series is Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart Is Folk Music.

Part 4 – Bob Dylan Plagiarism Controversy Is Silly

Sean Wilentz – Dylan very early on said, “Look, the song was there before I got there. I just discovered it. The song exists.”

It’s not about artifice. It’s not about something that’s that quotidian. It’s about something else. It’s about discovering it. It’s there.

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That has a lot of meaning, so he’s playing around with a lot of different things there. It means, in fact, he’s using other people’s songs, or songs that he’s heard out there, but the song was there before he was. He can grab it. He can find it.

Maybe grabbing is what he’s about, I don’t know, but that’s what it is. That’s the way he thinks about what he’s doing, I think, and he says so.

I think the point you’re making is the materials which he goes about discovering things; the things he uses, his … What is it, his dowser … Is the curious ones. He is a bit of an alchemist, in that sense. He brings together things that other people overlook, forms that seem dead, like folk music … What a dead form in 1960.

Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at The Philocretes

Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at The Philoctetes Center

And has an ability to bring something else to it, and something else that might be dead, like Bing Crosby, and voila.  That explosion is what allows him to discover the thing that was out there before he came along. It’s fascinating.

I think Google has a lot to answer for. Before Google, we didn’t realize you can just type this thing in, and you’ve got a concordance. We had to go to the library to find this stuff out. I can do it in 2 seconds now.

Henry Timrod, poet

Henry Timrod, poet

See  Bob Dylan Did Not Plagiarize On Modern Times

Borrowings, you mean like Henry Timrod? How many people here have heard of Henry Timrod before Bob Dylan?

None of you? Believe me, I know none of you have heard of him. If there’s one thing I know about everybody here, nobody ever heard (of him). Why?  Because Henry Timrod is basically a second-rate confederate poet. He’s not a very good poet. If you read his stuff, it’s not very good.

Those couple of lines here and there are what he was reading, when he was reading about the Civil War, and he put in his box, and he again rediscovered it, and he made something new out of it. What you’re getting is not Henry Timrod. You’re getting Bob Dylan.

I find most of this controversy is just a silly one, because it has nothing to do with the art we’re listening to. It certainly has nothing to do with Henry Timrod.

Christopher Ricks – I do broadly agree. (T.S.) Eliot says about being original with the minimum or alteration, he says, it’s sometimes its just as wonderful to be and that comes up with the borrowing question.

Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks

How much do you have to be? If you get into Timrod, what’s the difference between “frailer than the flowers” and “more frailer than the flowers”? The double comparative went out centuries ago, isn’t that right? It’s now illiterate to say “more frailer”, but it’s very, very beautiful, and it’s not the same thing to say.

You’ve got that Shakespeare loves double comparatives, as he loves double superlatives; “You’re most best.” You’re not just best: you’re most best. It’s a wonderful thing to be for someone.

I think a lot would turn on whether you think “more frailer” is really significantly different from saying “frailer”. Some of the things he adds in singing.

I was at the Boston concert on Friday, and people here will know concerts that I haven’t been to, but I hadn’t heard him sing before, for the first 2 verses of “Just Like a Woman”, “Yeah, but she breaks just like a little girl.”

I didn’t like it actually the first time, but I liked it when I realized he wasn’t going to do it when he turned to “her”. Instead of being “she, she, you,” then the “yeah” falls away. It falls away because there’s something vindictive at that moment. It’s fine if you’re talking about “her” to somebody else, as he is in the first 2 verses, but for her.

It’s a tiny difference to make, and you can think he sings words like “yeah”, “well” and “so” whenever he feels like it, but it actually terrifically changes the relationship within the song, and it’s tiny.

If in changing his own work, so much can happen by something so small, I think we should take the same view about what it is when something from Timrod, or of course much more importantly, from Eliot, gets into him.

Sean Wilentz – Absolutely. He can write a song like “Tangled Up in Blue”, in which you just change a couple of pronouns, and his whole song changes. He can write songs like that. There aren’t too many people who are doing that kind of song-writing. They’re kind of lyrical writing today.

That’s right, he has this very, very sharp ear for language, and so when he’s picking up on these things, these aren’t … Even the yakuza … The Japanese yakuza … He was writing about tough guys. He found ways to write about other kinds of things, using those tough guy images.

I could keep going there. A yakuza is a Japanese gangster, and there was a man who’d written a sort of memoir, an as-told-to memoir of a Japanese gangster, and Bob Dylan read it, and then 2 years after, “Love and Theft” came out, or 3 years after.

It was a while before people finally caught on. People realized that a lot, some of the images, some of the words, some of the trains of words, were the same as this book. This is really what began the great rip-off controversy.

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz

The thing is, the line about the feudal lord; he’s taking it from a feudal context, which means something completely different from what he has to say, and it fits what he has to say in a very, very different way. It means nothing in English, like it does in Japanese. It couldn’t. Historically, emotionally, nothing, but it fit what he was doing and he had that perspective.

Christopher Ricks – You’d distinguish it from Doris Kearns Goodwin, as an historian?

Sean Wilentz – Is this on television? I think that Bob Dylan is a historian unlike any other, which is to say that I enjoy reading him or listening to him and reading him, more than I do most of my colleagues, because he can give you a sense of a place. Even “Cross the Green Mountain” (from Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8), which is not a great song, but it’s an OK song. What he does is, by using Whitman – actually it’s basically Whitman’s poem – but he re-inhabits these things.

An absolutely execrable movie called “Gods and Generals”, which you should not see, but do see the trailer, which has him dressed up with his top hat … Always his top hat on, going back to [inaudible 00:18:15], as a … Going through the various camps of the Civil War, and seeing dead people, basically.

It’s a song about … basically about a pair of parents finding out that their son has been wounded. By the time that they read the letter, he’s dead. That’s a Whitman poem called “Come From the Fields, Father” or something like that, I think.

He re-inhabits it, as he re-inhabits all of the old songs, as he re-inhabits everything. Nothing is quite the same, once Bob Dylan has entered it. That is an ability which most historians … In fact, I can’t think of any historian … Actually has, to re-inhabit the past, and to communicate it in ways that are concise, not wordy.

Christopher Ricks – My bad taste remark about Doris Kearns Goodwin was, of course, about plagiarism, rather than about the value of history.

Sean Wilentz – I know.

Christopher Ricks – Yeah, sorry.

Tomorrow – Bob Dylan Bob Dylan Facts When Someone Attacks Your Imagination

Buy the books

Special mention for Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 which is one of the best albums in the Bob Dylan official Bootleg Series. It never stops revealing new aspects of Dylan’s work from 1989 to 2006 and is totally entertaining.

End Note

Sean Wilentz is a noted historian and the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in American history.

Christopher Ricks wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics – Dylan’s Visions of Sin, one of my favorite books on Bob Dylan. Ricks is also the editor of the extra-large art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics with variations. Tell Tale Signs 4 LP Vinyl includes the full size book that is worth the price for content and layout. Also available from and

The discussion took place at The Philoctetes Center for the Multi-Disciplinary Study of the Imagination. You can watch the symposium on YouTube although it’s tediously long at 1 hour and 49 minute.

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