by Jochen Markhorst
When Dylan butterflies around his gypsy gal in the early sixties, the toddler Suzanne Vega is playing on the streets in the same Spanish Harlem. She may have fleetingly noticed the shabby folk hero back then, but from puberty onwards, the maestro has played a growing role in her artistry. In interviews, the Grammy winner and “mother of mp3” (the inventor of mp3, Karlheinz Brandenburg, uses her song “Tom’s Diner” for his first audio compression) keeps mentioning Dylan’s name as her source of inspiration and personal hero. “From Bob Dylan,” she says for example, “I learned to expand my mind and the power of the image and metaphor.”
In 2013, when asked, she does not call her breakthrough hit “Luka” the highlight of her career, but: “My highlight was opening for Bob Dylan. Childhood hero, way more friendly and kinder than I could have imagined.”
The accompanying selfie is posted on her twitter account in January 2016 with the title The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face, the well-known song line from “Visions Of Johanna”. Undoubtedly out of fear for plagiarism accusations, Vega adds loud and clear the name of the author; “Bob Dylan #selfie”.
That caution is a legacy of the hot late summer of 2006, when a rampant Plagiarism Or Inspiration discussion in the various online Dylan groups skips to the grown-up world and even sets the opinion pages of The New York Times on fire, briefly. One of the most striking names among the letters submitted in the Times is Suzanne Vega’s, who in her movingly naive letter stands up for her hero. Dylan did not deliberately copy some lines of poetry by 19th-century poet Henry Timrod, she argues:
“Maybe he has a photographic memory, and bits of text stick to it. Maybe it shows how deeply he had immersed himself in the texts and times of the Civil War, and he was completely unconscious of it.”
(The Ballad Of Henry Timrod, New York Times, September 17, 2006)
Babe in the woods. Her closing words are a lot less wide-eyed, though. Quite captivating even, as a matter of fact: “He’s never pretended to be an academic, or even a nice guy. He is more likely to present himself as, well, a thief. Renegade, outlaw, artist. That’s why we are passionate about him.”
The fat hit the fire thanks to the digging of one Scott Warmuth, a New Mexico disc jockey, passionate Dylan fan and excellent, very worth reading Dylan blogger, who finds on Modern Times a dozen rather literal Timrod quotes, especially in “Spirit On The Water”, “When The Deal Goes Down” and “Workingman’s Blues #2”. Coincidence is indeed out of the question, so soon the discussion divides the fans, critics and know-it-alls into shruggers, defenders, attackers and disappointed. The disappointed stumble over the pattern that is now beginning to emerge; on “Love And Theft” (1997) the poet did copy exuberantly too, without mentioning the source (from Ovid, for example, and from Confessions Of A Yakuza, the fascinating memoirs of a Japanese gangster doctor).
Dylan’s interest in the forgotten Henry Timrod (1829-1867), the unofficial poet laureate of the Southerners in the American Civil War, presumably sparked around “Love And Theft”. We hear in “Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum”: well a childish dream is a deathless need, which already comes from a poem by Timrod (“A Vision Of Poesy, Part I”). Apparently, Timrod stays on Dylan’s nightstand hereafter; a year later another patch comes along, in the crushing “’Cross The Green Mountain” (the verse along the dim Atlantic line).
It’s a special recording in more ways than one, “’Cross The Green Mountain”. Dylan writes the song for the soundtrack of an epic, far too long flop about the American Civil War, Gods And Generals (2003), a prequel to the much more successful Gettysburg from 1993. Thanks to the incidental character of the recording, the conservative Dylan for once allows the use of a computer. Technician Chris Shaw is finally given permission to demonstrate the ease of ProTools, a program that the immediately impressed master uses more often afterwards, especially for cutting and pasting:
“We did a take of the song, and he was like, ‘Okay, I want to edit out the second verse and put the fourth verse in there.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and by the time he walked into the control room from the studio, I had it done. And his eyes just opened wide. ‘You can edit that fast on ProTools?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you can keep everything?’ ‘You can keep everything, Bob.’ You could just see the gears in his head suddenly spinning.”
(interview with Chris Shaw, “Tell Tales Special”, Uncut, 2008)
More noteworthy is the particularly tasteful video clip that accompanies the (abridged) song, with the singer in an outfit and with a charisma that has become one of the iconic images of an elderly Dylan. Partly filmed at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, where a subdued grieving Dylan places a photograph at the grave of a Southern officer, Captain William R. Jeter, who was fatally wounded at Culpeper Courthouse in October 1862 at the age of 28.
Clip ’Cross The Green Mountain:
But above all, obviously, the song is a magnificent masterpiece, a song deserving a status like “Blind Willie McTell” or “Not Dark Yet”, harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood, as the bard would say.
An inspired Dylan, who has been studying the Civil War (1861-65) for over forty years, chooses a sober, elegant and poignant musical background with the push and pull rhythm of a marche funèbre – matching the end of the film and the theme at all. Equally fitting this customization are the graceful, stately lyrics. From his notebook full of Bible quotations and 19th-century poetry fragments, the poet constructs an atmospheric monument, a tight, apocalyptic elegy. References and quotations can be found in each of the twelve verses. The first lines are inspired by Revelations (“And I saw a beast rise up out of the sea”), the Irish poet W.B. Yeats (“Heaven blazing into the head,” from “Lapis Lazuli”) and perhaps also Ezekiel 20:47, the only Bible verse with the word blazing, and, again, fitting in with the bloody war between North and South: “and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein.”
In the following verses we find more Civil War poets. Shepherd, Henry Lynden Flash, Walt Whitman (the letter to mother part), Gannett and Waterston – all contribute more and less literal quotes. And Henry Timrod, the only source to which a defensive Dylan, years later, acknowledges some indebtedness.
The acknowledgement takes place in the Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore, 27 September 2012:
“And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. […] It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”
A bit too assertive perhaps, but paradoxically too modest as well. “’Cross The Green Mountain” is a great song with a compelling mosaic lyric, demonstrating how a brilliant poet who lards his work with copy-pasted snippets from all over, can reach Olympic heights.
Awkward only is that Dylan himself is one of those “wussies and pussies complaining about that stuff.” Just ask Hootie & The Blowfish.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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