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Tempest Re-visited: A Nostalgic Glimpse.

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There was, in 2012, a tempest of excitement whipped up by Bob Dylan’s new album and it may be time to re- assess the album in the light of several years of Frank Sinatra melancholy and a bit of judicious analysis.

There’s no doubt that there are strains of ‘vintage’ Dylan in the record. The excitement may be due to the revival of certain Dylanesque phrases and tones which were reminiscent at times of some of the best work. The best songs- Pay in Blood, Long and Wasted Years and Tempest itself have echoes of Idiot Wind, If You See Her Say Hello and Black Diamond Bay and there is some great phrasing (‘If I hurt you baby I apologise’), some amusing asides (‘The rich man Mister Astor’) and a lot of rage: ‘I’ll drag his corpse through the mud’ etc. But there’s no doubting the fact that the phlegmy, ruined voice is difficult to listen to at times and I find myself drifting off during ‘Narrow Way’, ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Early Roman Kings’ where the banality of the music is too repetitive to sustain attention.

Dylan has never really ‘arranged’ songs- there are few variations of pace and intensity in his work where the musical setting is really the base for the words- he could never have produced Bohemian Rhapsody– and here the basic grooves go on and on with a kind of hypnotic effect. We have to face the fact that Bob can actually be quite boring these days, especially in concert. Do you really want to stand in a field in the rain, having paid £65 to listen to a Highway 61/Summer Days and Early Roman Kings medley? Could you really enjoy it if he did Tempest in concert after Stuck Inside of Mobile and Forgetful Heart?   Some can- I know. I can’t, and won’t be going to see him again unless he plays a folk club in Wolverhampton for a tenner (which is all I can afford given my financial circumstances).

And this begs a bigger question about the wealth-machine that Dylan runs- £65 in, a pint is a fiver at the bar, hot-dogs £7; t-shirts £30; programme £10, de-luxe CD £13. Dylanology has become a wealthy middle-class pursuit and though we may like him or love him, we will never really know the real man (Robert Zimmerman) or what he thinks- the whole thing is a kind of phantasmagoric game, a wizard of Oz spectacle where we pay a fortune to Bob to tell him how great he is and always end up going home from the gigs feeling empty and drained, the albums themselves being a production which really has no living substance. Bob may have some insight into the times but try ringing him to get some help paying your rent and you soon realise there’s nothing there- it’s a machine of worship, a valuable art-form certainly but having no effects upon the reality of your life when it comes to it.

Nevertheless Dylan is an important artist in mass culture- no Shakespeare I think (he has no facility for developing an argument in verse)- but surely the most intelligent singer-songwriter and recording artist in post-war history. He can be a great fantasy companion- the public life-story is fascinatingly interesting with all its breakthroughs and comebacks. The visual images are stunning (he really was very beautiful as a younger man), and the voice is companionable and comforting, strangely, for such a radical artist. I like him a lot, as an icon- I appreciate his jousts with the philistine press and personally I think Street-Legal is a total masterpiece which represents his finest work. I’ve played it an estimated 2000 times and it still gives me a buzz because it does have genuine insight into the coming times and their quantum chaos.

Overall then I think it would be wise to realise that recorded music is a fantasy form- Bob really doesn’t know you exist even though you think he does- and the work has been variable, at times brilliant, at times banal and wretched. Tempest sits in that context. It’s got real oomph in parts, represented another mini-revival and is probably in the end worth the money as an art-object.

But I need to be crude here and finish with a realistic estimate of its worth. In the hierarchy of albums I’d place it about twelfth. In itself, as a recording I’d give it finally a disappointed 6/10.

It would have been a 7, but I hate Roll on John. I don’t need a paean to another millionaire music business icon at this stage in my life. (Imagine is a rotten song.) If he’d finished with something like an updated ‘Sara’ it could have been a lot better. And the cover is completely deranged. What has a Viennese-Athenian river nymph got to do with any of it?

Bob Dylan and the ‘Plagiarism’ Issue Put to Bed?

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In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan gets very angry about the Plagiarism issue which has haunted him since the publication of Chronicles and the great work by internet sleuths in tracing some of the hidden sources of ‘his’ work.

He claims that borrowing and quotation is part of ‘The Tradition’ and that only he gets blamed for doing it whilst others get away with it.

This issue requires a bit of wisdom and honesty because it is central to the evaluation of Dylan as an artist and man. So let’s have a go.

It is certainly true that ‘The Tradition’, by which we mean the history of oral folk song in previous centuries and the modern folk revival in Europe and America since 1959, does use quotation, allusion and even straight ‘theft’ as part of its modus operandi. Take for example Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’- a song much lauded for its beauty and originality. Have a look at Martin Carthy’s first album with Dave Swarbrick and you find a Scottish accordion folk-tune called ‘Beeswing’. Now is that plagiarism by Richard, or a source of inspiration? Pure plagiarism would be where Thompson merely reproduced the tune as his own without elaborating or adding to the original. In fact, he elaborates a new story from the title and the tune is not derivative so here we might say is a case of an inspiring source, developed through the tradition. However it leaves a bit of a nasty taste that the title is not ‘original’ and this makes us think a bit less of Thompson. We feel the borrowing is a bit lazy and perhaps should have been acknowledged in a note on the album.

In earlier centuries because there was no copyright in oral ballads, songs spread throughout the British Isles- ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor’, for example, surfacing in dozens of variations with no apparent original author who was paid for the reproductions even when they found printed form through The Childe Ballads or in Cecil Sharpe House and so on. Many ballads begin ‘In the merry month of May’ but no-one got paid for originating the phrase and we just can’t be sure where all the ‘Lord and Lady/Gypsy’ plots came from for example or who should get a credit for them.

A problem arises, as is well known however, when a modern recording artist claims a copyright fee for this work. The famous ‘Trad. Arr.’ by-line gives the money to the guys who ‘found’ the source and arranged it first eg The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and this has long been a source of controversy, particularly with Dylan’s Good As I Been to You where the complaint was that Dylan had stolen the very arrangements (Nic Jones, Paul Brady) that others had established in the first sense. We felt Bob had been dishonest. Liner notes acknowledging the arranger’s work would have been fair, but then Bob might have lost the smack of ‘originality’ he was trying to establish on that album. If he didn’t get ‘Arthur MacBride’ from a gypsy in New Orleans or even from Soodlum’s Popular Irish Ballads but nicked it from Paul Brady, we feel cheated. Bob may think he’s above the law of attribution but there is an ethic that you don’t steal original arrangements, and he broke it.

I think it is perfectly acceptable to play with ‘Barbara Allen’ by creating a song called ‘Scarlet Town’ and using allusion and quotation to weave a new story. That is what T. S. Eliot did in The Waste Land and many others besides. But Eliot was kind enough to supply notes on his sources and the real scandal here is not that Bob developed ‘Barbara Allen’ but that he took Gillian Welch’s idea for ‘Scarlet Town’ and kind of warped it into a new song. Once again he stole an idea and an arrangement from a contemporary and this I find objectionable. The song ‘Tempest’ is also surely too close in melody and inspiration to The Carter Family’s ‘Titanic’, and we all know that the recent borrowings have sometimes been too flatly reproduced to be acceptable. It’s great to develop a source into a new form but where the borrowing suggests laziness I think it needs to be declared unacceptable. It’s not exactly plagiarism, but it isn’t quite developed enough to be declared original and Dylan is playing this borderline with increased frequency.

Mitigation then. First, we don’t know if Gillian Welch gave Bob permission as a friend to use her version. She may even be delighted to be so acknowledged by the king of modern songwriting. The Carter family’s record sales may soar because of Bob’s allusion- another benefit he may perceive in using his fame to inspire sales for neglected artists. Did Paul Brady benefit from the lifting of his arrangement? Almost certainly. Did he mind? Perhaps he told Bob at a party that he didn’t and was actually chuffed. And the use of out of copyright author’s like Henry Timrod may also draw vast attention to his work and increase sales and academic attention etc. You have to decide whether the ‘plagiarism’ is worth it on balance.

Finally though, if you do object to Bob’s liftings- what are you going to do about it? Some may sue. Some may get angry but find that when they write to Sony-Columbia they get no reply. Some may love him for his cheek. Some may say he has earned the right to take anything he likes because he has established his own originality beyond doubt- no-one is arguing that ‘Visions of Johanna’ was lifted from anywhere. Myself? I get angry when I see whole passages lifted from novelists with barely a word of change. That is just not on. With ‘Scarlet Town’ I can live with the adaptations because the song is still Dylanesque in essence and because trad/original fusions are always interesting as say with Fairport Convention’s version of ‘Matty Groves’ etc. But the issue is: are these artistic inspirations moving on the art-form or are they just lazy deceptions? I think Dylan’s case is just edging the latter and he is not being honest about this in his Rolling Stone rage.

To re-iterate the point then: whatever you think about it, what are you going to do about it? Have you tried ringing Bob to discuss it? Don’t bother- he’s not there.