Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

16 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan”

  1. I think that like many people I still have mixed feelings about Bob Dylan. Some of his early songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” were indeed brilliant and influenced a generation. However ripping off other musician as he did with “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright” because the original composer hadn’t registered the copyright was a bit mean. Where he really fell down was when he rewrote the Dominic Behan classic from 1960 “The Patriot Game”, changed the setting from Ireland to the USA and called it “With God on Our Side”. He could at least have offered to split the royalties 50/50 with Dominic. Unfortunately the words of “The Patriot Game” were much more poetic and most people already had a copy in their record collection. For anyone who doesn’t own a copy, I shall include the YouTube link for “The Patriot Game”:-

    1. Don’t Think Twice used the melody of a song by Paul Clayton (‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)’ ), a friend of Dylan, but was a much different (and far better) song. Clayton’s song was itself derived from an earlier folk song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone?” which was in the public domain. Dylan’s and Clayton’s publishing companies sued each other over the alleged plagiarism, but the lawsuits, which were settled out of court, had no effect on the friendship between the two songwriters. In the notes to Biograph, Dylan acknowledges that ‘Don’t Think Twice’ was ‘a riff that Paul [Clayton] had’. He also credits Clayton for the melody line to “Percy’s Song”. As for ‘The Patriot Game’/’God on Our Side’ issue – the tune was ripped off, but the sentiments of the two songs are entirely different. In his book, Bell writes:

      ‘Dylan’s view was, as it remains, that everyone adapts, everyone in some sense thieves from what has gone before. … One odd result is this: Dylan is lauded as one of the most original artists of the age and accused, simultaneously, of relentless pagiarism. So what if both claims are true? And would nusic be better off if Bob Dylan had never borrowed?’

  2. Interesting observation just above; Irish political/musical influence. During my brief encounter with Mr. Z (he had a thing for black girls; imagine finding one who had been to Laugharne and quoted D. Thomas) I had the key to Tommy Makem’s apartment; Dylan annex at the time. Clancy Bros. & T.M. were almost always on tour.

  3. Gerry this is another fascinating blog. I still think that Zim’s account in Chronicles is the best and I have a cabinet full of biographies. Harvey seems to entirely miss the point. Dylan’s extraordinary creative contribution has been to listen, steal, meld and shape from Cecil Sharpe, Woody Guthrie, William Blake, Symbolist poets, Leadbelly – in 2009 he even delivered Gene Autrey and Mendelssohn! He is a vast, classical enigma and for that reason love is theft.

  4. I agree that I entirely miss the point. That is something in which I have specialised all my life and got rather good it, even though I say it myself.
    Andrew – if you haven’t copyrighted the slogan “love is theft” and nobody else has I would love to add that to my mottos on F/B.
    Love and Peace

      1. An early clue found in last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

        What am i saying, what am i knowing
        On this guitar i’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
        On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
        In the tune i’m hummin’ in the words I’m wrtin’
        In the words that I’m thinkin’
        In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
        What am I giving, what am I taking
        But you try with your whole soul best
        Never to think these thoughts and never to let
        Them kind of thoughts gain ground
        Or make yer heart pound

        Every poet is a thief

  5. Sorry to hear the book skims over ‘Blood on the Tracks.’ I was a bit young to ‘get’ Dylan when his albums up to ‘Blonde on Blonde’ came out. So I was thrilled to be around when a ‘proper’ Dylan album appeared and it’s still the one I listen to the most.

  6. Excellent review that has left me eager to read Ian Bell’s account of Dylan’s ‘lives’ soon. Even the title’s great – Song and Dance Man, Behind he Shades, Down the Highway, etc.? Not too much wrong with those, but Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan encapsulate the myth and the manifold musician, artist, actor, performer, family man, ultra-private individual and all else that Dylan has and continues to be – some start!

    Refreshing to read a review that refers to the sources and influences that not just were but had to be there for Dylan to build upon and draw from, without reference to those that cry ‘plagiarist!. Bells’ point/question is simple but as insightful as any I’ve heard asked about Dylan: ‘would music be better had Bob Dylan never borrowed.?’ The accusations of plagiarism, though frequent, are puzzling, and need to be challenged head-on, as you’ve done comprehensively in the comments here. Innovators have and will always borrow, learn and progress – it’s how simple stone structures became Cathedrals. Might sound ludicrous to draw a comparison between Dylan and St Paul’s, but no more ludicrous than to say he’s done wrong in drawing on past artists to create his monument in song,. He is to the latter 20th and early 21st century what Robert Burns was to the 18th: proclaimed almost immediately as a genius by critics, many of whom didn’t now what else to say: ‘The Heaven-taught Plough-man’,’The Spokesman of a Generation’. But, just like Rabbie Burns, Bobby Dylan defies definition, he’s master of his own myth, keeps on becoming, and – best of all – writes bloody brilliant songs.

    Thanks for your review – first I’d read of Bell’s book, and it’s gone to the top of my reading list.

  7. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was my theme tune when it came out – must be poetry!
    I haven’t read any books on Dylan I must admit – the music has spoken for itself somehow. I have got a book with his poems in though – Tarantula, but haven’t looked at it for years. Maybe I should!

    1. Might be better to let it lie – Bell has some pretty critical things to say about it, suggesting that Dylan soon came to realise that verse, not prose was his forte. I remember skimming it when it first came out and being less than impressed. I’ve never seen it since.

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