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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19 Responses to Old Music and Modern Times

  1. rosiebird says:

    Wow. I know how much you have always liked Dylan. I also know how much you have always despised those who use the work of broke/dead musicians and give them no credit. What a conflict this must have been for you…had you heard about the controversy elsewhere before you heard the album yourself, or were you listening to it and saying, “no, he did not write this line…”?

    Thank you for your review. I will not purchase it.

    • ken says:

      I bought the album the day it came out, as I would any Dylan album, so I hadn’t heard much about it beforehand. But it’s hard to miss. It wasn’t individual lines that jumped out at me, but when it got to “Rollin’ and Tumblin,'” the third song, my head snapped up when I heard Muddy’s guitar line and his opening words. And note that while the second song, “Spirit On the Water,” is one of the best on the album, the first, “Thunder On the Mountain” is a standard twelve-bar blues that’s not at all original to Dylan — it’s too commonplace and overused to be considered plagiarism. So we’re three songs into the album and basically I’ve heard one new Dylan song.

      I don’t despise Dylan. He’s always been a musical magpie, but on other albums, in his book, and on his radio program, he has been generous in acknowledging his forebears — though not necessarily with any financial recognition. It’s also worth noting that he sometimes fails to mention that he found a song through another artist; his version of the old New Orleans standard “House Of the Rising Sun” on his first album was actually copied directly from Dave van Ronk’s version.

      He’s also head-and-shoulders above most of his peers in that he usually changes and adds to what he borrows, creating something of his own. He’s closer to Van Morrison than Eric Clapton in my book in that sense. But on this album he seems to be drifting (once again) into musical laziness.

      Mostly what I am is disappointed. This album has gone to #1 and is receiving rave reviews, but it simply isn’t that good. He hardly seems to write melodies anymore, and there’s really only three or four good songs on the album that don’t sound like copies of earlier work, either his own or others.

      My real anger is directed at Sony/Columbia and their copyright hypocrisy. I’m also disgusted with the Dylan fans who defend this album and then mock hip-hop musicians.

      I wouldn’t recommend buying it — there are many other better albums. If you don’t have Time Out Of Mind yet, I would get that, as it’s by far the best of his recent albums. Love and Theft, his most recent album before Modern Times is also not bad, similar to the new one but with better, more interesting songs. Some of them are actually funny.

      • Time Out Of Mind… [is] by far the best of his recent albums. Love and Theft, his most recent album before Modern Times is also not bad, similar to the new one but with better, more interesting songs. Some of them are actually funny.

        Agree 100%.

        But my true faves are the 2 preceding TIME OUT OF MIND. The traditional songs of WORLD GONE WRONG & GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU. He probably lifted each of those arrangements wholesale from somebody else, too. Weren’t you going to send me some originals of some of the songs from those albums, K?

        • ken says:

          I do love those two albums, and I don’t know how much he lifted and how much was his own. Many of Dylan’s sources for traditional songs were the other folk revivalists of the 60s, and I’m not all that familiar with their work. Back then it was hard to find the original versions, and much easier to learn them from the folks who had big collections of 78s. But nowadays why listen to somebody copying the Carter Family when everything they recorded is easily available?

          I do recall that his “Broke Down Engine” pretty much sounds like Blind Willie McTell’s version, but I’d have to listen again to see how close it is. I have a cassette of originals somewhere; I’ll see how much I have on CD.

          Also, as I recall, he didn’t put his name on any of those songs. And he credits sources extensively in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong.

  2. shunn says:

    Speaking of borrowing lines from other people…

    I don’t know whether this track will amuse you or not, but…

    Bob” by “Weird Al” Yankovic

    • ken says:

      (f)oops bob spoof

      I was so focused on his brilliant ear for Dylan’s vocal style and mannerisms (and the hysterical harp breaks) that it took me most of the song to notice he was singing in palindromes. That’s outstanding.

      • shunn says:

        Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog

        Glad you liked it. I love the harp break that’s just one quick squawk between two words.

        • Re: Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog

          Yes, the one-note harp squawk, and the vocal mannerisms were great, I don’t know, you can’t just do Dylan by doing the obvious whine and going up on pitch on the last word every time – somehow it’s more than that, and Al got it right!

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog

            Great lyrics, but that guy can’t sing. He’s got that Bringing It
            All Back Home sound DOWN, though.

  3. trash80 says:

    Given the other comments I’m assuming you’re a Dylan fan, so I guess it would also be safe to assume you’ve seen Martin Scorcese’s Long Journey Home? In it, there’s a 5 minute section where one of Dylan’s folk mates (forgive me for not naming him as I’m rather unskilled at name recall) talks about how he had sung a rendition of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, which Dylan kinda-sorta asked if he could record, and his friend kinda-sorta said no, then Dylan went and recorded it onto his album anyway, much to the distaste of his friend. Karma won out though becase then Dylan had to put up with the Animals pinching the same song and style and making a stack of money from it about ten years later.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hope you don’t mind me jumping here, as I’m not a LiveJournal user (never come across it before, to be honest), but I’ve been having an argument with a friend about exactly this subject and you have just nailed it. I’ve referred him to this page. Nice work.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Just seen Mr. Tampering Man. It’s excellent. Has anybody else ever stressed “returned” on the first syllable? Or is it a Mid-West thing?

    Just wondered what you thought about Chronicles. The opening New York pages seem superb to me, but I’m not a New Yorker (or a musician), so …

    • ken says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrasing outside of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and it’s that way on every recording I’ve ever heard of the song.

      I was pleasantly surprised by Chronicles; I thought it was startlingly honest and beautifully written. I am a New Yorker and a musician, and I’ve been reading a lot about (and playing with many of the musicians from) the Village scene in the 60s, so I was fascinated. (See my most recent post about a big show of folks from that period.) I liked the rest of the book as well, especially his admission that he didn’t enjoy those concerts in the 80s and 90s anymore than I did. Eagerly awaiting Volume 2.

      So if you’re not a New Yorker or a musician, what/who are you, if you don’t mind me asking? And thanks for the comments.

      • Yes you see I got my – brand new Livejournal user name. (Gratuitous Dylan reference / pun.)

        I’m broadcasting from somewhere in the Irish Sea (a bit like Radio Caroline, I suppose, a reference which must age me fairly accurately). I’m not intending – at the moment, at least – to get a journal going myself, but I like your site, so I may hang out here from time to time, if that’s okay.

        As for “Chronicles”, yes, I agree, it was such a pleasant surprise, not at all what I was expecting. But … Clive James calls his ongoing autobiography “Unreliable Memoirs”, and I’m not sure Bob shouldn’t have done the same.

        I’ve just reread the opening section of “Chronicles”, which is clearly excellent. Some wonderful writing, e.g. “Nelson had never been a bold innovator like the early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships.” He has an authority, making pronouncements like that, that must be almost unparalleled.

        But – it’s all his story, isn’t it, and I don’t see a lot of self-questioning or even self-knowledge in there. It reads almost like Great Expectations would, if it were really written by Pip. Imagine what Dickens or Flaubert would have made of this character. Or Proust.

        Actually, I’m not sure he isn’t in Proust, as Morel, the unreliable and equivocal musician and chancer.

        Anyway, enough from me.

        Keep up the fascinating postings.


        • ken says:

          That’s true, Dylan isn’t showing much of his hand in that book, but then, does he ever? I haven’t read Proust, but “unreliable and equivocal” is about as good a description as I’ve heard.

          I’ve added you to my friends list, so you should be able to see more of my posts. I can also add you to a filter for my book reviews/summaries if you are interested.

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