Old Music and Modern Times

I’m glad to see that Bob Dylan’s plagiarism of many sources on his new album Modern Times is becoming something of a major story, although the focus lately has been on the lines and phrases he lifted from the Confederate poet Henry Timrod. I’m more concerned about the theft of songs. Every song on the album is credited to “Bob Dylan,” but two songs are flat-out stolen, almost every other includes lyrical and/or musical elements of other songs.

The most blatant theft on the album is “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, a thinly disguised rewrite of the Muddy Waters song of the same name. Dylan’s defenders make two points: one, that many others had done the song before Muddy, including Robert Johnson, so he stole it as well; and two, that such actions are “part of the folk tradition.” Neither defense holds any water.

However he got it, and whoever had performed it before, Muddy Waters’ estate holds the copyright on that song. I strongly suspect that if I were to record Dylan’s version of the song, and put my own name on it, Columbia’s lawyers would come down on me like a ton of bricks. They’d also come after me if I downloaded the version of the song recorded for Columbia in 1936 by Robert Johnson, who was paid a flat fee and whose estate had to fight for a share of sales from the boxed set released some years ago. Beyond that, Dylan didn’t just reinterpret the song the way Muddy did, he lifted Muddy’s arrangement wholesale, complete with having his lead guitarist duplicate the notes, the feel and the sound of Muddy’s guitar playing on the original. (And the saddest part is that the riff he stole hasn’t been played with any real energy or excitement since Muddy played it more than fifty years ago, and has since become a tired, boring blues cliche that makes the song worth skipping on Dylan’s album.)

And let’s put the “tradition” crap to rest right now. Bob Dylan is not, I’m sorry to say, “part of the folk tradition.” And not just because he and his record company will make more money from the sales of this album than many of the “folk musicians” he claims to venerate made in their entire lives. The “folk tradition” is about give and take, and while he takes with abandon, neither he nor his record company will give anything. You can’t reinterpret his songs, or re-record them, or pass them on, or even play them live on stage, without owing him money. In the words of an old blues song, he’s got a hand full of gimme and a mouth full of thanks-a-lot. Although there’s not a word of thanks or credit anywhere on the album for the musicians he borrowed from.

And how ludicrously hypocritical is it for a record company to be defending this kind of behavior? Dylan records for Columbia, part of Sony, one of the enormous corporations that have modified and interpreted copyright law so restrictively, and so punitively, that you can be dragged into court for activity that, when I was a teenager, was commonplace and innocuous. They have threatened innumerable artists and musicians, damaged careers and forced the withdrawal of significant new musical works because they sampled other work. But when Bob Dylan does it, it’s OK? (It’s ironic that many of the Dylan fans who defend his actions here are the first ones to dismiss hip-hop as “not being music” or in more blatantly racist ways.)

Modern Times is not a bad album, but it’s nowhere near one of Dylan’s best, and it’s nowhere near as good as the albums by people like Negativland, Eminem and the Beastie Boys that have landed their creators in court. Dylan should be forced to withdraw this album, negotiate agreements with the authors of the works he borrowed from, and reissue it with proper writing credits.

If you want to hear a good example of borrowing from older music, pass on this album, and instead buy Outkast’s Idlewild. It’s a combination of hip-hop and thirties jazz and blues, inventive and fun, bringing in elements of everyone from Cab Calloway to Prince, making a blend that you’ve never really heard before. Modern Times is not only derivative, you have heard it before, on better Dylan albums. Skip it.

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