Debating Bob Dylan's Lifting of His Popular Music

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From the list of singer-songwriters of the folk era, few have been as impactful on popular culture as Bob Dylan. Though other artists like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez also released exciting music that stand for the ethos of 1960s, Dylan today is considered the quintessential elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll and a genius by many. His songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone” have entered among the great American songs and even his recent albums are rated as relevant and great works in their own right. But most likely, even Dylan’s most passionate admirers would be surprised by the extent of the artistic “lifting” that the songwriter relies upon. Musically, Dylan’s songs are rooted in a wide range of influences: the melody of “Masters of War” was taken from a medieval English traditional while the mentioned above “Blowin’ in the Wind” was an adaptation of an old Negro spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” Lyrically, Dylan’s lifting of poetry from earlier artists is even more serious, especially on his recent album Modern Times, in which he literally used lines verbatim from the poetic voice of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. It is tempting to condemn Dylan for shamelessly stealing from earlier artists, particularly as the “Written by Bob Dylan” tagline is attached to even his most heavily-lifted works. But a discussion on the issue of plagiarism in art is important to understanding the context of Dylan’s actions. According to two authors, Jonathan Lethem and Laurie Stearns, the contemporary system of copyright in the United States is fundamentally wrong, but for two completely different reasons: Lethem argues that the strict copyrighting system turns art into a commodity, while Stearns argues that its ...

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...hem and Stearns is their background. Lethem is a renowned author and thus realizes the importance of imitation in art; it is debatable how much of his work is actually “his,” as it was inevitably influenced by countless authors from the past and present. Stearns approaches the dilemma with a legalistic mentality. Though she actually opposes the “commodification” of art that Lethem so despises, her suggestions to make copyright more stringent would actually do precisely this. In the case of Dylan, it’s clear that the songwriter is excused for his usage of imitating and even occasionally lifting previous works. As a folk singer, Dylan is uniquely allowed tolerance in this regard, as his music’s foundation is the exchange of influences. Further, Dylan himself allows artists to “steal” his work. Thus, the cycle continues – and hopefully it will for a long time.

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