I was thinking of going back to college and getting my Masters in Dylanology. Trying to come up with ideas for my masters thesis, I was struck by how all of the Dylanologists that came before had tried to ascertain the meanings behind his songs, and how that is just an exercise in futility. No wonder A.J. Weberman, NYC Yippie who in the early 70’s coined the phrase “Dylanology” went stark raving mad, reduced to combing through Dylan’s trash looking for clues. ( hence the coining of another phrase ” Garbology” ) Was there meaning to be found in the non sequiturs & historical references & old blues lyrics that populated his songs? Sure there was, but the actually meaning would always be open to interpretation. What could actually be ascertained was the sources they came from. For it’s long been apparent that just about everything that Dylan ever wrote can be pretty much be traced back from somewhere.
When Dylan first started out a as a fledging folk singer in Greenwich Village, his repertoire consisted of traditional folk and blues songs. His first batch of ” originals ” were largely lyrics and melodies based on that traditional body of work. His ” Song for Woody ” for example was built upon Guthrie’s own ” 1913 Massacre. ” Even his best known early work ” Blowing in the Wind ” derives it’s melody from the old slave song ” No More Auction Block ” and it’s lyrics from both the Old Testament and passages from Woody’s Guthrie’s book ” Bound for Glory. ” Historical note: even at this early stage of the game, someone tried to sue him for plagiarism. A New Jersey high school student claimed Dylan had stole ” Blowing from the Wind ” from him but nothing ever came of it. Now Dylan wasn’t doing anything new. This is what folk singers have been doing since time immemorial, handing down and adapting songs ’til they mutated into something else entirely. Snippets of his lyrics throughout his career can be traced to 16th century Elizabethan poets, to lines from films, to old Carter family songs and I guess that’s to be expected. But when large sections of his book ” Chronicles ” can be traced to other sources from H. G. Wells to obscure Japanese books on the Yakuza, that’s ” pretty close to real plagiarism ” to quote noted Dylanologist, Edward Cook. He discovered many of these with the use of Google’s search engine. No wonder one of Dylan’s later records is titled ” Love and Theft. ” When he accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Grammy’s in 1991, disheveled and clearly inebriated, he gave a rambling, incoherent speech that ended with ” You know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways. ” ( borrowing from a rabbinical commentary on Psalm 27. )
( author’s note: large sections of this blog post has been plagiarized from the book ” The Dylanologists, Adventures in the Land of Bob ” by David Kinney )