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Bob Dylan's last laugh

If rock's poet laureate is a plagiarist, he sure pulls it off with an artistic flourish

"Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you king." — Bob Dylan, "Sweetheart Like You"

"Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist," declared Joni Mitchell in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview in reference to Robert Zimmerman, otherwise known as Bob Dylan. 

For half a century, he's made a name for himself as the definitive American songwriter, a cultural icon who provoked a generation to question itself. But what about Bob Dylan the plagiarist — could rock's poet laureate actually be a rip-off artist?

A close examination of some of Dylan's studio output in recent years makes it hard to deny. And when he comes to perform at Atlanta's Chastain Park Amphitheatre this week, he'll be arriving with said baggage in tow. The topic has been covered extensively in the press over the last decade with publications ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal debating Dylan's legacy. Apparently, it's a thin line between being dismissed as a culture vulture and hailed as a master synthesizer in the tradition of folk and blues greats. But in an information age where content-sharing and sampling have become the norm, blurring the lines of legality along the way, what's really at stake is Dylan's status as a legend.

Dylan's 2006 album, Modern Times, was his first No. 1 album in the United States since 1976's Desire. He won two Grammy awards for the album, selling more than 4 million copies. When it was released on August 29, 2006, it was exactly one year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast causing the levees to fail in New Orleans. A song from the album, "The Levee's Gonna Break," opens with the haunting chorus, "If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break" — a seemingly brilliant composition in Katrina's wake. But Led Zeppelin recorded a similar song with the same chorus on Led Zeppelin IV 35 years earlier titled (surprise) "When the Levee Breaks." On Zeppelin's version — which opens, "If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break" — the band shares songwriting credit with Memphis Minnie, the artist who supposedly wrote the original version of the song and recorded it with his wife in 1929. Dylan, on the other hand, fails to share credit with Zeppelin or Minnie. Instead, the Modern Times liner notes state in all caps: "ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY BOB DYLAN."

It's a songwriting technique Dylan uses throughout Modern Times — borrowing the chorus and melody of classic blues songs and interspersing them with his own verses. Dylan admits as much in a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview: "You have to understand that I'm not a melodist," he says. "My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form."

Another lauded Dylan song from Modern Times, the Grammy–winning "Someday Baby," exemplifies his contemporary sound, full of more swinging soul than his earlier folk staples: "I don't care what you do, I don't care what you say/I don't care where you go or how long you stay," Dylan sneers in his raspy voice. "Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' me anymore." On first listen, it fits well alongside such Dylan fuck-off originals as "Positively 4th Street."

But it, too, has different origins than the album credits reflect.

"Someday Baby Blues," recorded by Sleepy John Estes & Hammie Nixon in 1935, contains a similar refrain: "I don't care how long you're gone, I don't care how long you stay, but that good kind treatment bring you back home someday. Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry my mind anymore." Other blues artists have recorded versions of the song, including Fred McDowell, Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters — all of whom, like Dylan, credited the song to themselves. But when the Allman Brothers recorded Muddy Waters' version of the song, titled "Trouble No More," in 1972 on the album Eat a Peach, the band credited McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters).

Similarly, Dylan claims credit for another blues staple on Modern Times titled "Rollin' and Tumblin'" — a song which has been recorded countless times before Dylan released his version in 2006. Though many of Dylan's lines are unique, calling "Rollin' and Tumblin'" a Dylan original as he does is clearly a stretch.

Not only has Dylan appropriated melodies and hooks from the blues pantheon and credited himself, he's also taken material from obscure literary sources.

After writing many songs documenting the brutality of racism, it's ironic that several of his songs on Modern Times contain lyrics lifted from a Confederate poet. Born in 1829, Henry Timrod was a cheerleader for the Confederacy whose poems served as battle cries and funeral hymns for Southern soldiers. But in 2006, a DJ discovered that several of Dylan's Modern Times compositions contained lyrics lifted from Timrod.

The poet Cliff Fell also found several instances of borrowed phrases on the same album. He wrote an article in 2006 in the New Zealand newspaper the Nelson Mail about his experience listening to the album while reading a 2000-year-old book of poetry, Tristia, written by the poet Ovid. "It was like I was suddenly reading with my ears," Fell wrote, citing almost identical lines heard in Dylan's "Workingman's Blues No. 2."

But to Fell, it didn't seem to matter. "This is homage, not plagiarism," he wrote, further noting that "Dylan's in good company. Ovid, himself, stole lines and stories from Homer, as did Virgil. And Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare all stole ideas and lines from Virgil and Ovid."

It isn't the first time in the last decade that Dylan has been accused of using lines from classic or little-known writers. When his previous album, ironically titled Love and Theft, was released on September 11, 2001, a Dylan fan teaching English in Japan found nearly a dozen instances of Dylan's songs containing phrases similar to lines in a 1991 book written by a Japanese doctor named Junichi Saga.

The first line in question — "my old man, he's like some feudal lord" — comes from the first page of Saga's book, Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan's Underworld, according to a 2003 Wall Street Journal article.

It's not just Dylan's recent albums that have raised questions regarding his originality. In 2009, fine art auction house Christie's admitted that a handwritten poem credited to a teenaged Robert Zimmerman that was intended for auction was actually the song lyrics to "Little Buddy" by country singer Hank Snow. After a reader notified Reuters news of the similarities between the piece and the Snow song, Reuters informed the auction house. According to the article, a 16-year-old Zimmerman originally submitted the "poem" to his summer camp's newspaper with his name signed at the bottom minus any mention of Snow.

All of which calls into question Dylan's originality. Or does it?

To consider Dylan's work plagiarism is "to confuse, well, art with a term paper," Robert Polito, director of the writing program at the New School, wrote on PoetryFoundations.com. He goes on to note that Dylan "taps into" many other sources on Modern Times, from the Bible to Frank Sinatra. No wonder why Japanese writer Saga told the Wall Street Journal he was flattered by Dylan's appropriation of lines of text from his book; he's in good company.

Artists have certainly borrowed from their predecessors for generations without always giving thorough credit. The foundation of early rock was built on the backs of blues artists, who often performed and recorded slightly reworked traditional songs of unspecified origins. By mining such musical legacies, Dylan has fashioned his own legend, full of artistic ambiguity. And maybe that's as he intended. Even the album title Modern Times is a partial anagram of "Timrod," the Confederate poet's last name who he allegedly stole from. Perhaps Dylan, the ultimate hipster, was applying his own sense of irony all along by using Timrod in the title.

But the real wink could lie in what the album title's remaining letters potentially spell out: Timrod S-e-m-e-n.

"Could this be a coincidence???," a commenter on the Dylan fan site ExpectingRain.com wrote in 2006 upon making the discovery. "I mean, could it? It has to be on purpose, in which case someone is having a HUGE LAUGH at the expense of all the people obsessing over Confederate era poetry. Maybe. Or maybe it is just a coincidence."

That Dylan still has fans grappling with questions 50 years after his debut is pretty ingenious, even if his means of doing so are suspect as hell.