By Peter McQuitty
Joni Mitchell’s comments about Bob Dylan’s “plagiarism” have surfaced again in recent Untold Dylan postings. Mitchell told the LA Times in 2010 that Dylan “is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” Mitchell’s comments are unfortunate but useful because they shine a light on how Dylan’s art works.
Mitchell’s comments come from a Romantic creative ethos where individual authenticity and personal experience are at the heart of artistic expression. Confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are kindred spirits. This ethos drives Mitchell’s own art and Blue, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, for example, are sophisticated albums which broke new ground in popular music, not least because they focused directly on women’s experience. What Mitchell refers to as Dylan’s “plagiarism” is not really plagiarism at all, just the product of a different creative culture which she chooses not to acknowledge.
There is plenty of “me” in Dylan’s work and his songs obviously draw on personal experience. However, Dylan is a post-modernist before he’s a Romantic and his songs are as much about the art that goes into making them as they are about his own personal experience. Everybody now knows that Dylan’s sources are extraordinarily diverse – folk, blues, rock and country music, Classical and Biblical literature, American literature, and more. And that he draws very freely from them. His achievement is to take from so many different sources and shape that material into his own art. It is this breadth, depth, and facility that Leonard Cohen was referring to when, in Musician (1988), he described Dylan as the Picasso of modern music.
Dylan has never tried to hide his sources and in this way he draws attention to the processes involved in his artistic production. Contemporary folk practitioners were fully aware of Lord Randall, Chimes of Trinity, and The Patriot’s Game and even Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone? It is the differences between these sources and the songs that Dylan made from them that is the point of his art, like the differences between the songs on the three overtly Christian albums and the Biblical texts from which the lyrics are largely lifted.
Over time, Dylan’s references – Homer, Ovid, Juvenal, Timrod etc – become more obscure but only for those not familiar with the sources. The references – which provide depth, resonance and cultural perspective to the songs – are there to be enjoyed by those who have the cultural knowledge and to be discovered by those who do not. That “useless and pointless knowledge” sneered at in Tombstone Blues turns out to have a purpose after all. Part of Dylan’s artistic mission as he ages is, as he says (quoting Ovid) in Rollin’ and Tumblin’, “conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs.” Or selected bits and pieces from the long dead, as he suggests on My Own Version of You.
T.S. Eliot wrote in Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) that great works do not come from the artist’s personal feelings and emotions alone, but from the artistic process whereby the artist synthesises personal experience with impersonal external elements. The great poet “will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest” and then “weld(s) his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.” This is Dylan. Eliot writes about “the intensity of fusion” which can occur between individual experience and this external material.
This is also Dylan. Isis and Changing of the Guards are unusual in that the fusion between personal experience and, in these cases, ancient mythology is extremely intense and almost total. However, this fusion occurs in various forms throughout Dylan’s work. For me, the whining police siren that introduces the very colloquial confrontation between God and Abraham on Highway 61, is just one powerful example. Eliot’s theory of art turns out to be an accurate description of Dylan’s approach to making art much later in the century.
Joni Mitchell, still searching for personal authenticity, claims that Dylan’s voice is “fake”. In a 2013 interview, she said that “He’s invented a character to deliver his songs … it’s a mask of sorts.” Well, Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue provoked a lot of discussion about masks so she was onto something there.
Dylan’s work has never been about his own personal authenticity, his own voice. He has invented different masks for a number of different characters over the course of his career. And they all have different voices, each reflecting the particular issues that he is exploring at the time.
We know the main voices: the harsh voice of the downtrodden common man who is only a pawn in the games played by the powerful; the alienated but super-cool individualist who knows how society works and who rejects it; the mellow family man who really enjoys pies and other country matters; the illiberal born-again Christian ranting from the stage that Jesus can transform all human problems in an instant; and, in more recent years, often the voice of regret and bitterness.
For me, these are often more than just different masks and voices. It is as though Dylan, at different stages of his career, has adopted and completely inhabited different personas. At his strongest, Dylan was not so much a singer as a Brando-style method actor, passionately inhabiting his various roles and living out all the different dimensions within them. Ronnie Hawkins, quoted in Michael Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, says: “But Bob is like a – what’s the word? – a schizophreniac . . . I’m sure he’s not like that but he has different personalities for different things”. Hawkins isn’t the only person to have made that observation. This is the difference between Dylan performing his songs and others singing them. Joan Baez might make a sweeter sound but, for me, she drains the songs of personality and impact.
Dylan may have been a consummate actor, but he has always been fully conscious of the different roles and voices that he is manipulating. He makes a joke at the expense of the authentic voice in his version of The Boxer on Self Portrait where he performs a duet with himself by double tracking two of his different voices.
Joni Mitchell’s comments are sour and a bit sad. However, they can take us away from spurious notions of authenticity and point us to a greater appreciation of the multitudes contained within Dylan’s art.