Monday, January 09, 2012

Dylan on Cash . . . Or?


I came across some lines yesterday, written by Dylan about Cash:
Johnny didn't have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.

I was so impressed by this description that I followed it up to find the context, which proved to be Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan was talking about his own song "Man in the Long Black Coat" on the 1989 album Oh Mercy, which he recorded with Daniel Lanois, comparing it to Cash's "I Walk the Line":
I wasn't sure that we had recorded any historical tunes like what he [i.e., Lanois] had wanted, but I was thinking that we might have gotten close with these last two [i.e., "Shooting Star" and "Man in the Long Black Coat"]. "Man in the Long Black Coat" was the real facts. In some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my "Walk the Line," a song I'd always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.

I'd always thought that Sun Records and Sam Phillips himself had created the most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made. Next to Sam's records, all the rest sounded fruity. On Sun Records, the artists were singing for their lives and sounded like they were coming from the most mysterious place on the planet. No justice for them. They were so strong, can send you up a wall. If you were walking away and looked back at them, you could be turned into stone. Johnny Cash's records were no exception, but they weren't what you expected. Johnny didn't have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger. "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine." Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Johnny's voice was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low pitched -- dark and booming, and he had the right band to match him, the rippling rhyhm and cadence of click-clack. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God. When I first heard "I Walk the Line" so many years earlier, it sounded like a voice calling out, "What are you doing there, boy?" I was trying to keep my eyes wide opened, too. (pages 216-217)

In looking around the internet for this passage in full, I noticed that several sites had remarked that Dylan was quoting from various sources in penning his memoirs. To be precise . . . quoting without quotation marks. Plagiarism! Or is it? There's too much of such copying for Dylan to have been trying to deceive anybody. Or to put it another way, Dylan's was no dishonest deception, it was forthright deception -- Dylan living outside the law but being honest. A trickster. In an article "Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One" for the New Haven Review (Issue 6, 2010, pages 71-83), Scott Warmuth argues that "Bob Dylan . . . has embraced camouflage to an astounding degree, in a book that is meticulously fabricated, with one surface concealing another, from cover to cover" (page 71). For instance, the lines that had so impressed me:
Johnny didn't have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.

Warmuth notes that:
Almost every word there comes from [Jack] London's story "The Son of the Wolf," cut, pasted, recast.

Click on that short story. You can search for the sources of Dylan's phrasings. His copying. As Dylan might have said, "Only those in the music business would understand that." And read Warmuth's entire article -- it's only thirteen pages, and has much of interest to relate about Dylan's tricky literary language that leads us deep in wandering mazes lost, unacknowledged.

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16 Comments:

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

As my brother Sean, a professional cellist, notes, musicians copy off each other all the time. There are references within references. And when it comes to music, you can't stop (unless you're Victor Borge) to indicate quotation marks. Perhaps Dylan writes the way many musicians compose.

 
At 8:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dylan could have used quotation marks, of course, but that would have altered the otherwise fluent flow of his memoirs.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:34 AM, Blogger Andi Wojciechowski said...

This was a fascinating article (thanks for sharing it!) and I'm left only slightly wondering where it will fit into the cultural plagiarism dialogue.

On one hand, who cares: "No man with a puny imagination can continue plagiarizing and make a success of it. No man with a vivid imagination, on the other hand, needs to plagiarize."

And "nobody remembers the people Jack London borrowed from and his works still stand up."

And "what Dylan is up to [is] alchemy [...] he frequently takes found materials and turns them into gold".

-- Dylans's more a magician-artist than a con-man.

But on the other hand, let's face it: it's a book not music, and even if the book is potentially art the book purports to be and is being sold as non-fiction.

(Whatever will our burgeoning young academics think? Do?)

Personally I think it's an incredible, hilarious bit of genius. And whether Dylan's work is classed as art, music, con, magic, illusion, or alchemy, Dylan was a storyteller and image-maker who expressed and communicated "being human".

Perhaps on some sub levels,
issues from above
don't really matter.

 
At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Andi. I need to read that article more closely -- I mainly speed-read yesterday.

I am pretty hardline on plagiarism in scholarly writings. Such an attitude is part of my job as one who teaches academic writing.

But a memoir is a different genre, a text in which one is 'remembering' from the present, presenting one's life from where one now stands, evaluating and commenting with an acquired wisdom of years.

In Dylan's case, that involves him in his role as trickster, not saying one thing, but meaning another -- and elaborating literary puzzles for us to recognize as the game being played, one in which we're called on to undertake literary sleuthing to uncover sources.

The process tells us something interesting about Dylan -- his reading list, and his creative use of what he's read.

As for 'plagiarizing' . . . well, I've committed an instance of it in the blog entry, and also set an additional literary puzzle, just to see if anybody notices . . . which is perhaps partly what Dylan was up to.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:58 AM, Blogger Scott Warmuth said...

Thanks for the link to my article. I dig your nod to Milton at the end of the post.

You can find more of my writing on Dylan's work on my blog. A good starting point might be the long list of Jack London similarities that I referred to in my New Haven Review essay:
http://swarmuth.blogspot.com/2011/05/dylan-dossier-jack-london-file.html

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Warmuth, thanks for noticing my blog entry (and my nod to Milton).

Allow me to link directly to the address you posted: Bob Dylan channeling Jack London!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's possible to nod off to the Milton influence - especially on the web. Maybe Dylan thought Johnny was one of the tzaddikim? After all, he did dress in black.

 
At 7:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Johnny as righteous? Maybe, but Johnny seemed to consider himself unrighteous . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The righteous shall live by faith - unless they're tzaddikim: a fittingly Dylanological conundrum. Then there's the one of nodding off to Dylan's nods to the tzaddikim. Living in the land of Nod?

 
At 10:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dylan's attempted both approaches, I reckon, but maybe the two are united in the first couple of commandments -- if only we could ask Dylan and get a clear, straight answer!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure he'd be most obliging, as he was to Bill Flanagan in 2009. Indeed, as true believers, we're on the outside looking in.

 
At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"ten thousand years of culture fell from him". Metaphorical of course; otherwise this would contradict the implication about humanity, even the world, even the universe, being under 6000 years old in his Spin interview with Scott Cohen in 1985, where he expounds the "messianic complex".

 
At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not familiar with the Spin interview conducted by Scott Cohen, but I recall a Rolling Stone interview from the early 1980s in which Dylan said something similar about the age of the earth. He may have changed his mind since then about that (though the 10,000-years-of-culture remark could still be metaphorical).

Was the talk with Bill Flanagan also an interview? You wouldn't happen to have links to these, would you?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, just in case the anonymous comments are from different people, my apologies for the conflation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This can all be easily Googled. E.g. "messianic complex, Scott Cohen" etc. You're an academic, after all. But here's one, tho, in general, particularly with the messianic complex, there are some issues of cavalier transcription by fans and incompleteness of the interview.

http://www.rams.demon.co.uk/bd1.htm

Flanagan 2009 was publicizing the Xmas album. There is an '85 one, Written in My Soul. Sounds like you may have a life if you can't keep up. The RS one you refer to is on the web somewhere. There's a load of PDFs called Every Mind Pollutin' Word, specially designed not to be copyable - even tho whoever did.

Any further probs just email me.

 
At 7:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I'll look for these.

Jeffery Hodges

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