by Tony Attwood
Updated April 2018 including a link to a live version.
From Haiku 61 Revisited
Dylan has endlessly been accused of taking other people’s lyrics and melodies, and it has never particularly worried him. With Floater he goes overboard on the borrowing, with music taken directly from “Snuggled On Your Shoulders” by Lombardo/Young and lyrics taken from Junichi Saga’s novel Confessions of a Yakuza (translated by John Bester).
Maybe the contrast between the two sources amused him.
If you want to hear the original song there are many versions on the internet, but here’s the most famous (although its not complete) by Bing Crosby.
Do listen, it is one hell of a song wonderfully sung.
Here’s a complete version
There is a complete analysis of the original words compared with the lyrics of a whole range of Dylan songs here – but to give a bit of a flavour just consider this.
…some kind of trouble that put him on bad terms with the younger men… it’s up to him whether a session comes alive or falls flat…even kicking him out wasn’t as easy as that… I decided to wait a while and see how it worked out… age doesn’t matter…Age by itself just doesn’t carry any weight. (155)
Well, the old men ’round here sometimes they get on
bad terms with the younger men,
Old, young – age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end
Things come alive or they fall flat.
Not always easy kicking someone out,
Got to wait awhile, it can be an unpleasant task.
Dylan obviously loved this book having found it, for it is also used as a source in “Honest with Me”, “Summer Days”, “Po’ Boy”, and “Lonesome Day Blues”. One gets the impression he didn’t have too much to say.
The author of the Dylan haiku quoted above also makes an interesting comment on the song as a whole…
The song contains 16 verses, none of which seem to relate to each other, other than a recurring reference to living like a contrarian when people try to get the singer to do one thing or another. The title comes from the last verse when Dylan observes that it’s not easy to kick someone out (of your home, I guess), and that it’s unpleasant task. Sometimes, he says, someone wants you to give something up, and even if they cry about it, “it’s too much to ask.”
I think that’s as good a summary as one can do.
So, is this plagiarism? The answer in most countries is no – or at least no in the sense of being a breach of the copyright acts of the country. I can only speak in detail for the UK but under the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1988 it probably isn’t in terms of the lyrics, because not enough is quoted. In terms of the music however, that is awfully close, and I wouldn’t want to defend a case if the estate of Lombardo and Young decided to try it out in court.
What Dylan doesn’t do, and what could have precluded any worries at all, is acknowledge sources. Had he done so everyone might have been happier since it would have sent a lot of people off to buy the original.
It is fairly obvious from the intro to realise this is not really a Dylan song, since the chords used are totally non-Dylan. Just like we can tell from the opening second of Wheel’s on Fire that Dylan did not compose this on his own, because of the second chord in the verse, so we know the same is true here. Dylan doesn’t do augmented. Or at least not with such panache.
So what are we left with? A simple opening of happy summer days…
Down over the window
Comes the dazzling sunlit rays
Through the back alleys—through the blinds
Another one of them endless days
Honey bees are buzzin’
Leaves begin to stir
I’m in love with my second cousin
I tell myself I could be happy forever with her
The interesting thing here is that this is so non-Dylan, just as the chords are. Remember this is the album with Mississippi on it – ok that was written some time before but even so, it is a masterpiece of Dylan. And this is just… well, not as good as Crosby and the original.
I keep listening for footsteps
But I ain’t hearing any
From the boat I fish for bullheads
I catch a lot, sometimes too many
This is a village life idyll, with a bit of the sharp end…
The old men round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end
One of the boss’ hangers-on
Comes to call at times you least expect
Try to bully you—strong-arm you—inspire you with fear
It has the opposite effect
And a spot of home spun philosophy
They say times are hard, if you don’t believe it
You can just follow your nose
It don’t bother me—times are hard everywhere
We’ll just have to see how it goes
OK if it is true, it is rather nice at times, as with…
My old man, he’s like some feudal lord
Got more lives than a cat
Never seen him quarrel with my mother even once
Things come alive or they fall flat
And then it just goes over the edge. Maybe Mark Knopfler was on the scene playing old Dire Straits songs…
Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”
Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much”
Or in Mr K’s version:
Juliet says hey it’s Romeo you nearly gimme a heart attack
He’s underneath the window she’s singing hey la my boyfriend’s back
You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
Anyway what you gonna do about it?
In the end we are left craving if not for Shakespeare (whose stories were of course often borrowed from Hollingshed) then at least for Dire Straits’ resolution…
When you can fall for chains of silver you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold
You promised me everything you yeah promised me thick and thin
Now you just say oh Romeo yeah you know I used to have a scene with him
Doesn’t that make your heart ache? But here we get the fall beyond the edge which is then is fallen over…
If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life
I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound
I’ve seen enough heartaches and strife
Dylan, who has just nicked another song, is threatening? Well, not really, it comes from the source book.
I had ’em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas? Who knows
When told about Dylan’s use of his lines the original author of the text said he was honoured. I guess I would be too. Trouble is, I’ve never written anything good enough to be nicked by Dylan.
Bing Crosby recorded his version on January 21, 1932 and released it on Brunswick record number 6248.
Here’s Bob on stage, seemingly referring to the lyrics as he sings – very unusual for him.
You might also be interested to read
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