Friday, September 15, 2006

Tempest in a Timrod

From the New York Times, an article about Bob Dylan's latest borrowings. Some controversy or other keeps coming up around poor Bob. You remember, last time it was a fairly obscure novel he was accused of pilfering from? Well, there he goes again. Here's a bit of lyrical effusion from Dylan's song "When the Deal Goes Down" from his album, "Modern Times."

Well, the moon gives light and it shines by night
When I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O'r the road we're bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
("The moon gives light and it shines by night." Wow. Talk about speaking truth to power.)

Anyway, here's Timrod's more antique effusion:

And here again, but led by other powers,
A morning and a golden afternoon,
These happy stars, and yonder setting moon,
Have seen me speed, unreckoned and untasked,
A round of precious hours.
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked,
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers,
To justify a life of sensuous rest,
A question dear as home or heaven was asked,
And without language answered. I was blest!
See the almost uncanny similarities? No, neither do I. Well, there's a moon, and some frail flowers... and something even frailer than that, though as to what it is... and there are some precious hours, too.

But, in fact, were Timrod alive today... and he's not... I would venture to say he wouldn't complain about the couple of phrases Dylan has lifted from his work. I venture to say, in fact, that only someone whose common sense has been destroyed by too much legal reading, could find a borrowing like Dylan's even worth noting, let alone consider that it rises to the level of requiring any sort of acknowledgment. Have we really come to the point where a felicitious turn of phrase can be considered "intellectual property"? God help us.

Add to the absurdity, the fact that Timrod - known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy - has been dead since 1867, so his poems have been in the public domain basically forever. So who's complaining about this, exactly?

The Times article provides some helpful background:
But some fans are bothered by the ethics of Mr. Dylan’s borrowing ways. “Bob really is a thieving little swine,” wrote one poster on Dylan Pool (,642969), a chat room where Mr. Warmuth posted his findings. “If it was anyone else we’d be stringing them up by their neck, but no, it’s Bobby Dee, and ‘the folk process.’ ”
Um... if you follow the link, it's not quite as bad as you might think. In fact, it's really just some guy very briefly venting his spleen about ... well, nothing much. Nobody else joins in. Hardly the groundswell of outrage the Times writer implies.

Now, I'm quite ready to believe that the New York Times has basically manufactured this "controversy" to fill space on a slow news day. So here's a message for the NYT:


But in case anyone is misled by the article - it's in the New York Times, my God! - and actually thinks there's some sort of moral or ethical question - or, God forbid, a legal question - here's the deal, once and for all:

The public domain... is public. You don't owe anybody anything for using it. Not acknowledgment, not credit, not a thank you in your album liner notes. If you use something substantial, and you know who wrote it, I personally think it'd be nice if you acknowledged him, even if he's a hundred and fifty years dead, but I'm prepared to leave even that to your discretion. (But Dylan clearly didn't use anything substantial, did he? I think not. I haven't seen any so-called "borrowings" that run to more than a handful of of words.)

And hey, if there really are any Dylan fans who feel betrayed? Get a grip. "More frailer than the flowers" isn't worth it.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Ironic for a singer whose idiom is "folk." More than "truth to power" it's "vernacular to power" that I think Dylan personifies more than anything. "Rap" belongs to the same line, arguably, and famously caused all kinds of convulsions in copyright law/jurisprudence. Obviously not an area where law and culture march in lockstep.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger rain_rain said...

Do law and culture ever march in lockstep?

Who likes marching, anyway? I always hated marching, even when I was in marching band. But if you were in band, you had to be in marching band; so I brought a book to the football games, and always played "Charge" backwards.

Anyway I never think of culture as "marching" - I think of it more as spreading like water, seeping into the cracks, taking the shape of its container... then deforming the container when the temperature changes. I don't think of law as marching, either. Sometimes I think of it as standing guard... in a malevolent or benevolent sense... sometimes I think of it as blocking the road like a big old boulder or a deadfall that you dassn't try to cross. Mostly, I think of the law as just kind of sitting there like a big old field, and people with lots of money get together and pick up clods of dirt, dig trenches, and play war.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Imagine their locomotion how you like, but case books practically seem dedicated to the principle that the two don't move independently.


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