Disc 3 of Biograph starts out with a kind of victory lap — one song from each of the distinct and productive periods showcased on the first two discs. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” is from the Freewheelin’ era, while “I Wanna Be Your Lover” has that Hawks sound of his Highway 61 mode. From the Blood On The Tracks period we get “Up To Me”, and “Caribbean Wind” dates from 1981, placing it in what at the time of Biograph‘s release were his “modern” years.

Of these, by far the best track is “Up To Me”. I love the Blood On The Tracks mode in general, and this song shares a sound and a structure with “Shelter From The Storm”, lots of verses that keep returning to a central concept, ringing changes on it as they approach it from different angles. “Up To Me” in particular is just a gem, resonating with themes that mean a lot to me — friendship, loyalty, longing, helplessness. As sometimes happens to me with songs, this one captivated me enough that I wanted to play it on repeat in my car, to learn all the words. So I did — and there are a lot of words! 12 gorgeous verses, and they’re imprinted on my heart now, after about a week of listening.

The rest of the disc is a sort of gumbo, various ingredients combined to make a tasty concoction:

  • Songs made (more) famous by other people: “All Along The Watchtower”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, “Forever Young”. “All Along The Watchtower” was a folksy hootenany on John Wesley Harding, albeit a spooky one. Then Jimi Hendrix came along to transform and immortalize it forever. The version on Biograph is live from 1974, and owes more to Hendrix’s version than to Dylan’s original. As Bob says in the liner notes, “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way.” Tons and tons of people have covered it, and the same is true of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon, and Guns ‘n’ Roses spring to mind. Zevon’s is the most haunting version I’ve ever heard, as he recorded it while actually dying, but I have to admit it took a lot of listens before Axl Rose’s “Ay ay ay ay yeah” left my head. As for “Forever Young”, perhaps it’s a generational accident, but The Pretenders made me familiar with it long before I ever heard Dylan’s original.
  • Songs from the born-again period: “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Solid Rock”, “I Believe In You”. I find most of Dylan’s Christian songs pretty hard to relate to, and “Solid Rock” is a good example. I don’t object to it, but it’s just miles away from my beliefs and tough to connect with. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a little closer to my mind, and I think it expresses a general truth that’s widely overlooked, but Dylan’s quotation of the “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay” routine from the 1970s, which for inexplicable reasons was considered funny at the time, kind of derails the song. On the other hand, “I Believe In You” is genuinely touching and beautiful, even if Sinéad O’Connor’s version eventually placed it in the previous category.
  • Latin-flavored songs: “Romance In Durango”, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”. For a while there in the mid-70s, Dylan was fascinated by Mexico, and a couple of numbers from that period appear on this disc. “Romance In Durango” in particular contains quite a bit of Spanish in the chorus, a dramatic climax, and a catchy tune that stays with you for a long time.
  • Obscure album tracks: “On A Night Like This”, “Time Passes Slowly”. In the liner notes, Dylan says of “On A Night Like This” (from Planet Waves), “This is not my type of song, I think I did it just to do it.” Turns out, it’s not my type of song either — it just doesn’t do much for me. “Time Passes Slowly” (from New Morning) works a little better for me — it reminds me of long mountain weekends, away from everything with no reason to worry. Those have been some of my happier times.
  • A couple more hits: “I Want You”, “Just Like A Woman”. On the other side from the obscure tracks are these reminders of Dylan’s hitmaking power. Both of these songs were top 40 Billboard hits, and each time I hear them that fact surprises me. I think it’s clear that I love and appreciate Dylan, but I’m always a bit startled when I see him achieve sales success. His voice is strange, his musical sensibility eclectic, and his lyrics off-the-wall even in songs such as these. But I enjoy them, and am happy to see that others do too.

Head shot of Bob Dylan in his mid-twenties.

One thing that struck me while listening to this disc was when I’d hear pieces of other people’s songs referenced in some way. The live version of “Heart Of Mine” pulls part of its bass line straight from “My Girl” by The Temptations. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” takes both lyrics and tune for part of its chorus from The Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which was first released as a single by the Stones. No doubt this jumped out at me because I’ve also been listening to “No More Auction Block” on volume 1 of The Bootleg Series, which provided part of the melody for “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

Call them lifts, call them allusions, samples, quotes, thefts — people have called them all those things. Dylan himself minces no words when asked about whether it’s okay for him to borrow words or tunes from others: “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me… All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.” It’s a venomous response, perhaps due to having to give it so repeatedly, but it’s not wrong. Even in cases where he’s wholesale copy/pasted someone else’s words into his songs or his book, he always puts the quote in a transformative context. He has quoted (without attribution) a Civil War poet, a Japanese author, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, old issues of Time magazine, and so forth. But at no point is he writing Civil War poetry or Japanese novels or Time magazine articles, and he generally encases the lines in an entirely new work that allows each source to illuminate the other.

Certainly in the folk tradition, reworking songs and combining them with new words or variations is a longstanding practice, just as Dylan points out. When he or someone like him can take an old spiritual like “No More Auction Block,” give it new words, new melodic filigree, a new chorus, and come out with a song like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” can we really say that’s plagiarism? Sure, we can hear the similarity, but that doesn’t make them the same. Hell, even our own national anthem is part of this tradition — “The Star-Spangled Banner” is Francis Scott Key’s words set to an already extant tune, “To Anacreon In Heaven.” (For that matter, “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” is identical in tune to “God Save The Queen.”)

Dylan’s problem is that he’s partaking of and embodying a traditional structure that predates the matrix of capitalism and copyright in which he lives and earns his living. It was one thing for folk singers of 200 years ago to adapt and rework existing material, but nowadays we have a notion that if you create something, you are entitled to control over what happens to that thing, at least for some limited period of time. (A period which keeps growing, thanks to the efforts of Disney and others.) If you decide, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate one of those more modern creations into your own, you can get in hot water — just ask Sam Smith or George Harrison or Ray Parker, Jr.

But where to draw the line between allusion and plagiarism, between tribute and rip-off? Is it how much of something is included, or the nature of what’s included? What if a few words are changed here and there — how many are enough to draw the line? Do some things belong to all of us more than others? How original does the new work have to be in order to “count” as new work? Who gets to make these decisions?

I think I know what Bob Dylan would say: the artist gets to make those decisions, especially if that artist is Bob Dylan. In a speech accepting his award as 2015 MusiCares Person Of The Year, Dylan said, “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth… I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”

For folk singers, emphatically including Bob Dylan, everything that comes into you is yours, and if it comes out of you in a new enough, creative enough form, then you get to put your name on it. Should he mention his sources in liner notes or other supplemental material? Yes, absolutely. If nothing else he could be using his clout to draw attention to the sometimes much-lesser-known work that’s inspiring him. But should he avoid those quotations, or give songwriting credit to them? I think not. Dylan has earned the right to call his works his own, even as they incorporate the work of others. And if there is some dispute as to Dylan’s ability to create new and inspiring art out of his influences, I would enter into evidence discs 1, 2, and 3 of Biograph.

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