Archive for April 28th, 2010

Bob Dylan: The Rorschach Test Of His Generation?

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

April 22nd, folk singer Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson in Canada) was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”

Today, author and LA Weekly contributor Jonny Whiteside amplified Ms. Mitchell’s charges, adding a dirty-laundry list of specific complaints, including:
* 16 year old Robert Zimmerman (the future Dylan) submitted an “original” poem for publication which was – in fact – a “thinly revised version” of Hank Snow’s song, Little Buddy.
* He cribbed from Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod, among many others.
* Dylan’s song Beyond The Horizon featured a “naked… melody heist” from “Red Sails In The Sunset.
* “…his vocal style was high-jacked, in its entirety, from long-dead bluegrass-country singer, Carter Stanley.”

In accusing and convicting Dylan of these and other musical high crimes and misdemeanors, Whiteside invited his readers to type “Bob Dylan plagiarism” into their favorite search engine. So I did. And what I found was both more and less than what Whiteside (and Joni Mitchell) may have intended.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess that I initially bought into Whiteside’s whole indictment. Part of this was due to his authoritative writing style, his many cited examples, and his stated willingness for us to look at the facts for ourselves. But a big part of my lack of impartiality was my long-held personal belief that Dylan is a moderately talented guy who was hyped as The Voice Of His Generation.

So I was open to what Joni and Jonny were selling. Unfortunately, some of their arguments are… well, arguable.

They’ve apparently got him dead to rights for swiping the Hank Snow lyrics – when he was 16. So they’re entitled to claim he committed that particular theft (even if the statute of limitations ran out it, 48 years ago!)

And the chord sequence in Beyond The Horizon (not the melody, as Whiteside stated) is about as close to Red Sails In The Sunset as you can get – as close, say, as My Sweet Lord was to He’s So Fine, and those guys collected, big time!

But the supposed plagiarism of the Civil War poet is – when looked at in context – a harder sell.

So is the claim that he appropriated Carter Stanley’s singing style as his own. Carter did indeed sing in a rural Southern accent (something not native to most kids from Hibbing, Minnesota). And he did have a nasally tenor. But, if you’ll go to YouTube and listen to Carter for yourself, I don’t think you’ll hear any of Dylan’s distinctive talk-singing. Nor did Carter’s pitch fall off at the end of phrases in the Dylan fashion.

Indeed, after investigating each of Whiteside’s claims, I concluded that Dylan was not clad in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Nor is he the Anti-Christ or Zelig (check it out) of pop music.

Perhaps what he really is, is a Rorschach Test in the eye and ear of every beholder – a moderately talented guy who isn’t The Voice Of His Generation. But then, who truly could be?