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“Steal a Little …”

WHENEVER Bob Dylan takes pause from his never-ending tour to record and release a new collection of work, all that be certain of its reception is that the audience will include a chorus line crying foul over plagiarism.

So it is with his 35th studio album, Tempest, out this week. Only days after its release, a glowing critical welcome is being eclipsed by a dawdling controversy which seeks to chastise ol’ Bob for failing to include the kind of left-justified bibliography in his sleeve notes one would expect from an emeritus professor of anthropology. It is like accusing Dulux of stealing blue.

In the past decade alone, the bedraggled troubadour has been accused of training his magpie eye on a multitude of archaic, esoteric sources, from the memoirs of a senior Japanese yakuza to a largely unheralded Civil War poet. Tempest is no different, with a crumpled riverboat gambler’s hat cocked to the likes of Quaker poets and the dirt-floor blues of the Mississippi Sheiks.

Such influences are testament to Dylan’s encyclopaedic and insatiable cultural appetite, but he is right to feel slighted when his detractors demand of him an academic’s authorial rigour. In an uneasy interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan declared himself sick of the age-old argument, reasoning that such appropriation was a “rich and enriching tradition” open to “everyone but me.”

Any hopes of a conciliatory end to the conversation were shot down in flames when the 71-year-old claimed his accusers were cut from the same cloth as those who branded him Judas for turning electric. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff,” he spat. “It’s part of the old tradition, it goes way back … all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

I wouldn’t regard myself as a Dylan obsessive, but I’ve enjoyed going through his back catalogue in the past couple of years, charting his progress as an artist, whether he is stepping forwards, backwards, or sideways. As such, there’s probably several bookcases’ worth of Dylanology better placed to offer a more convincing riposte to the man’s detractors than myself, but I don’t think you have to be a devout fan of his to realise that accusations of plagiarism are a fundamental misinterpretation of his work.


“His entire five decade-long career has been an open conversation with his musical antecedents”


A failure to acknowledge sources in many fields is unscrupulous and indefensible, but Dylan takes discriminatingly, forming new contexts. His entire five decade-long career has been an open conversation with his musical antecedents – whether Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Blind Lemon Jefferson – and he has forged the results with snippets of references summoned up from literature, the Bible, folklore, even nursery rhymes. It is no surprise that one of his heroes is Greenock-born Captain Kidd, denounced as a pirate in one draft of history, yet hailed as a privateer in another.

If there is anyone Dylan is guilty of misappropriating most down the years, it is himself. I watched him play live in Glasgow a few years back, but even having braced myself for the unexpected, he appeared to take his meddling to new levels. It was Dylan in his element, the elusive ringleader of his circus, audibly working news incarnations old favourites with a steam-powered calliope and a staccato growl. If I was taken aback, I can’t imagine what the gaggle of Grand Ol’ Opry regulars made of it, their pink cowboy hats resolutely failing to bob along with the ever-changing meters and melodies echoing around the SECC.

Having toured near continuously since 1988, it is clear that Dylan thrives on those moments during his concerts. He never looks back, yet he gains sustenance from what has gone before, forever attuned to the distinction between thieving someone’s work and plundering their vision. “Steal a little and they throw you in jail,” he sang in 1983’s Sweetheart Like You. “Steal a lot and they make you king.”


About martynmcl

Senior reporter at The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. Views here, however, are personal.


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© Martyn McLaughlin 2007 – 2021 unless stated otherwise

Portrait by John Devlin

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