opinion

Don't Think Twice, It's Alright: A tangled tale of the Pulitzers, pop, and "plagiarism"

Will Bunch

Updated: Tuesday, April 8, 2008, 1:04 PM

Imagine this scenario: A veteran newspaperman -- let's call him Dylan Timrod -- at a large metro paper, hailed throughout a lengthy career for some groundbreaking journalism dating all the way back to the 1960s, is finally awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Shortly after the announcement, an enterprising blogger (is there any other kind?) Googles some of Dylan Timrod's more flowery prose -- the stuff that won him the big prize in the first place -- and learns that the phrases aren't really so original. Some of his best stuff, at least in the more recent articles, is clearly taken from a now-obscure but once prominent Civil War poet, while others echo best-selling foreign authors. None of the borrowed phrases are credited to the original authors. How do you think it plays out? Does the Pulitzer committee strip Timrod of his award? Does his newspaper fire him? I don't know the answer -- but my hunch is there'd be a big enough flap to prevent Mr. Timrod from winning any big-time awards going forward. But what happens when you take that anecdote, substitute pop music for journalism, and replace Dylan Timrod with Bob Dylan. You get a story that's very similar to facts that have come out in the last five years regarding the bard of '60s protest rock and his more recent "borrowing" -- some dare call it plagiarism -- from obscure poets and writers. And yet the accusations clearly slid off Dylan. Yesterday, the singer-songwriter was awarded a Pulitzer Prize of sorts -- a special citattion, the Pulitzer board called it -- alongside a dozen journalists who'd probably be canned if they pulled the same level of liberal phrase-taking. The Pulitzer board cited Dylan for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." Some of which is borrowed from other poets who had the misfortune of dying before they could cop their own Pulitzer, apparently. I have to say: I love the recordings of Bob Dylan, and even though I was somewhat disturbed a couple of years ago when I read of his lyrical borrowings, I still do. A CD of Dylan's greatest hits is in my glove compartment at all times, a reminder of how "Like a Rolling Stone" competed, incoherently, with Devo's first LP for the two discs that got me through my sophomore year of college. But plagiarism and pop music are an oxymoron, in a world that both Rick James and M.C. Hammer can safely inhabit. But what causes people to put Dylan on a pedestal -- as was the case yesterday with the Pulitzer board -- is his "poetic power." Which gets back to why I found Dylan's borrowing habits so puzzling -- call me old fashioned, but one of the reasons I always enjoyed his works was thinking that he wrote all of them. And I guess he did write a lot of them, or maybe some of them. In 2006, we learned this: While experts have not directly accused Dylan of plagiarism over the songs on his latest album, Modern Times, which is number one in the US charts, they say there appears to be little doubt that he has liberally "borrowed" from the works of the Confederate poet Henry Timrod. For instance, the lines in his song "When the Deal Goes Down", in which Dylan sings: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours", bear a striking resemblance to lines contained in Timrod's "A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night", which reads: "A round of precious hours, Oh! Here where in that summer noon I basked, And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers." Elsewhere in the same song, Dylan sings "Where wisdom grows up in strife" - very similar to a line in Timrod's poem "Retirement", which reads: "There is a wisdom that grows up in strife." But a few years earlier there was this: An alert Bob Dylan fan was reading Dr. Junichi Saga's "Confessions of a Yakuza" (Kodansha America, 1991) when some familiar phrases jumped out at him. There were a dozen sentences similar to lines from songs on Mr. Dylan's 2001 album, " 'Love and Theft,' " particularly one called "Floater (Too Much to Ask)." Yeah, yeah, yeah, says Rolling Stone, (named, ironically enough, for that Dylan song whose title comes from a Muddy Waters song, but everybody knows that...) that's just Dylan's schtick, a folk music thing, Maybe. But what if he plagiar...um, "borrowed" in his written autobiography, too? Check out what this blogger discovered in 2006: Apparently Bob consciously or unconsciously snipped a few florid Victorian phrases and dropped them into some of the old-timey songs on his record. I don't think there's anything really wrong with that; it's not like he took whole passages and used them wholesale. And yet Dylan, in his memoir Chronicles, comes pretty close to doing exactly that with other authors The writer certainly makes a strong case that Dylan "borrowed" hefty phrases from the likes of Marcel Proust and Mark Twain. Even that troubling allegation doesn't make his best records any less magical, but -- given the traditions that the Pulitzer Prizes seek to honor and uphold -- I wonder if the plagiarism issue is something the Pulitzer board even looked at in its don't-think-twice rush to honor an artist in a field that doesn't match any of the categories. Well, it's a great barroom argument, I guess, and perhaps nothing more. Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize will only enhance the legend of Bob Dylan, even as he beats on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.*

Will Bunch

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