Sunday, May 24, 2009
"Broken hearted and so sad,
Big blue eyes all covered with tears,
Was a picture of sorrow to see,
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told me"
It was supposed to be a simple song about a simple man who, in a fit of drunken rage, turns violent and kills a boy’s dog.
But if it was so simple then why 42 years later is the press hounding its author? Because, it turns out, it isn’t quite that simple after all.
Written in the summer of 1957 while attending a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, the two-page poem is believed to be the earliest known handwritten lyric by camper-turned-culture icon, Bob Dylan.
Simple enough on the surface, sure. But things suddenly got complicated last Wednesday when it was revealed the words weren't Bob's. Instead, they were lifted almost verbatim from a song by the popular Canadian country singer, Hank Snow.
In the imitable words of the man in question, “things are gonna get interesting right about now.”
What’s interesting about all this mixed up confusion over Dylan’s youthful indiscretion isn’t so much that Dylan plagiarized someone else’s work (an issue we shall revisit and ultimately dispute). What’s interesting is that it got to the point where it’s become an issue at all.
Certainly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But for the sake of simplicity let’s start with Christie’s, the prestigious auction house that planned to relinquish this ‘lost gem’ to the highest bidder. Christie’s should have known the poem was a not Dylan’s. In fact, anyone with a computer could have figured it out.
A simple Google search of the first line of the poem would have rendered that Dylan’s ‘lyrical brilliance’ as Christie's so carelessly alluded to the 2-page document was nothing more than a line-by-line transcription of Hank Snow’s 1947 song, “Little Buddy.” A song, by the way, Snow performed every night he appeared on stage at the Grand Ole Opry for 46 years.
But it seems this piece of pop culture trivia eluded Christie’s pop culture specialist, Simeon Lipman, who apparently couldn’t spare the .24 seconds it would have taken to perform the search.
There’s no shame in what Dylan did all those years ago. Nor, frankly, should his act of ‘appropriation’ take anyone by surprise. By revising existing lyrics by changing words around and adding a few of his own, Dylan was, in effect, affirming an old country and folk tradition.
And while the impressionable Bob Zimmerman may have erred on the side of relying too much on the existing lyrical structure and underlying narrative of Snow’s song, the tradition he was embracing undoubtedly served us all well in the long run.
Stop and think for a moment. What if that naïve, wide-eyed 16-year-old kid from a little Minnesota mining town had been precluded from drawing on the Bible, popular film, and pulp fiction— not to mention all the writers and critics who prophesied with their pen long before he came along? Dylan’s body of work would have been very different indeed.
Take the famous rhetorical refrain from Dylan’s 1963 social anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in which Dylan inquires:
"How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?"
If the question seems an eternal one, that’s probably because it is. A similar line appears in Revelation 8:8. It reads: “it were [as if] a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea.”
A deeper dive into ancient text finds a passage from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh in which the question Dylan asks of his listeners is asked in almost the exact same way:
"How many times must a home be restored or a contract revised and approved?
How many times must two brothers agree not to dispute what is theirs?
How many wars and how many floods must there be with plague and exile in their wake?”
Without question, Dylan knew his Bible…and his Blake…and his Warhol…and his John Ford. The lyrical allusions to scripture, literature, pop culture and cinema serve as starting points, signposts and send-ups throughout so many Dylan songs that entire books, dozens of websites, even a class at Boston University are devoted into delving into a lyrical landscape that is littered with characters culled from the complete human experience.
Perhaps David Hajdu, author of Positively 4th Street, said it best with this wry observation: “We have this idealized image of the creative process that is essentially fallacious, this idea that what the artist does is commune with the muses and to bring forth expression that’s never existed before.”
Maybe the Muse isn’t some spiritual, intangible force who sporadically touches the artist at the most opportune moment. Maybe the Muse is the artist himself; and the ‘inspiration’ we hold with such hallowed regard is nothing more than the artist’s ‘interpretation’ of the work of those who came before him.
And while “Little Buddy” may not demonstrate Dylan’s brilliance in interpretation, perhaps relishing the words of another inspired Dylan to embrace a talent that, over time, would prove to be more than authentic…
Little Buddy Rest In Peace,
God Will Watch You Thru The Years,
Cause I Told You In My Dreams That You,
To learn more about the Biblical allusions in Dylan’s lyrics, click here.
Dylan has always been a self-proclaimed film buff. To learn how that love has infiltrated his work, click here.