Bob Dylan borrowed heavily from the blues throughout his career

By Stephen Pate – I was listening to blues legend Robert Johnson singing ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ on Robert Johnson – King of Delta Blues today and could have sworn Robert Johnson was singing Bob Dylan’s Pledging My Time.

Some joker got lucky stole her back again” Robert Johnson sang in Come On In My Kitchen,  recorded in 1936.

Somebody got lucky but it was an accident” Dylan sang in Pledging My Time sang 30 years later in 1966.

In case we miss the direct link, the melody and chord structure of the two songs are identical.

Just before that line in Pledging My Time, Dylan sang “After he stole my baby Then he wanted to steal me”.

This is not news but it slammed me in the face this morning.

There are original ideas in Pledging My Time which make the song uniquely Bob Dylan but the Robert Johnson influences are plain as day.

Robert Johnson’s influence on folk and rock music

Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues

Robert Johnson influenced lots of 60s folk and rock musicians. Most of the 60’s artists were more than willing to pay homage to Johnson.

Eric Clapton’s version of Crossroads is typical. Cream called it a cover which it was. Clapton has spent a lifetime bringing Robert Johnson to the public’s attention.

Dylan’s first LP, simply called Bob Dylan, was mostly old blues songs. Critics thought Dylan was pretty cheeky to be trying the old blues chestnuts at age 20. That didn’t stop Dylan from putting his own copyright on some of those songs. Dylan did acknowledge his sources back then.

By 1966 and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan had learned the blues tradition of changing the old songs enough to claim copyright cleanly. The titles of the earlier Dylan LPs Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited hint at Dylan’s blues influenced roots.

Modern and not-so-modern times

Forty years later in 2006, Dylan had reverted to singing blues songs under his own copyright with little change from the originals in the album Modern Times.

Bob Dylan copied the melody and arrangement of Muddy Waters 1950's version of Rollin' and Tumbling'.

Bob Dylan copied the melody and arrangement of Muddy Waters 1950’s version of Rollin’ and Tumbling’.

Bob Dylan copyrighted Rollin’ and Tumblin‘ in Modern Times but the song was written more than fifty years before by Muddy Waters. (Wikipedia and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”: The Story of a Song) 

Muddy Waters Rollin’ and Tumbling’ was revising the song Roll and Tumble Blues recorded by Hambone Newbern in 1929.  Muddy Waters claimed copyright for his version.

Dylan’s version has new lyrics but the tune and arrangement is a note-for-note copy of Muddy Waters. In the world of US copyright law, if you copy the melody, it’s an infringement. There are rumours Dylan paid a fee for the use of Muddy Waters recording. See also Expecting Rain discussion.

The success of the blues is partially based on the familiarity of themes, lyrics and melodies that gives audiences instant recognition of new songs. Like many musicians, Dylan learned to mine the blues vein with great success.

For another discussion of Dylan’s blues roots, see Listen to Bob Dylan’s Many Influences. (NY Times)