Good Artists Borrow; Great Artists Steal

posted October 30, 2005

When I first started to write songs, my efforts not to copy, borrow or steal from any other artist, brought me to the point of despair over the fact that there were only eleven notes in a scale, not to mention that all the best songs had already been written using the same three chords. Nevertheless, I set out to be a total original–with pretty humorous results, writing songs with chord progressions that would make Schoenburg wince. Not only that, I tackled such subjects as Ireland’s first female Prime Minister (Mary Robinson), ragweed allergies and the ever popular Ballad In Twenty Four Verses: Phyllum Schizomicrophaeda. I couldn’t figure out why people weren’t singing along right away.

And then I discovered Bob Dylan. At the age of 14, I wandered into the kitchen on a June evening to find my father playing the guitar. This was not unusual—my father plays the guitar at almost every opportunity, especially when he is running a bath or sitting alone in the kitchen. That night he played an impassioned, thrilling song, singing at the top of his tenor range with warmth and feeling, “ There ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe/ If you don’t know by now.”

“What’s that?” I said, not recently keen on my dad’s song choices (Waylon Jennings and The Clancy Brothers at that time).
“It’s a song by Bob Dylan,” he said. “’Don’t Think Twice; It’s Alright.’”
“Who’s Bob Dylan?”
“Oh, he wrote a million great songs. But he wasn’t much of a singer.”

I was on the case. A week later I went to tennis came in Sun Valley Idaho where I spent half my time mooning over a camp counselor named Tom Van Dyne who was an unimaginable seven years my senior, and the other half writing letters to my dad asking for more lyrics and chords to Bob Dylan songs. I had brought my little nylon string along and nightly regaled the other kids in my dorm with the five or ten Beatles songs I knew how to play. The letters came from my father bearing strange hieroglyphics which Tom Van Dyne, a Dylan fan and guitar player, helped me decode. By the end of my three weeks I won the camp talent contest singing the Beatles “All I Gotta Do,” and officially gave up my tennis racquet for the acoustic guitar. I saved my pennies and one by one bought Dylan LPs, pondering them and playing along.

Having gone to a grammar school infused with the English folk song tradition, I noticed that many of the songs Dylan claimed to have written sounded either vaguely or specifically familiar to my well trained ears. For example, “Girl from the North Country” was clearly a version of the old “Scarborough Fair.” In a biography I read, Dylan grumbled about the fact that Paul Simon had stolen the idea from him, when in fact, I knew that “Scarborough Fair” was written in medieval times. (Moreover, it’s more likely Simon stole the “idea” from Martin Carthy whom he met over in England.) Yet, Dylan’s song, “Girl from the North Country” evokes in this listener a new melancholy I hadn’t experienced either singing the song in school in its original form nor in Simon and Garfunkel’s prettified (and contemporized) anti-war version. Bob Dylan, through the grit of his performance, slightly unusual harmonization, and a few changed lines, really had made the song his own. I play it when I am home and lonely, reveling in the minor seventh chord he uses, enjoying the way he brings the tune from one octave down to another.

On the recommendation of my friends, Pete and Maura Kennedy I am reading Positively Fourth Street, a telling of the intersecting lives of Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Farina. One theme that keeps popping up, over and over again is: Good artists borrow; Great artists steal. Joan basically stole her entire repertoire from those around her in Cambridge in 1959, and she unabashedly admits it. Dylan presented himself so much a Woody Guthrie clone that locals were offended when they detected Dylan even mimicking Guthrie’s ticks and shudders, brought on by the disease Huntington’s Chorea which was killing him. And yet, through their bold stealing, they each fashioned a completely unique and new presence in American folk and pop music, greedily garnering influences into a personal melting pot and producing something fresh and new.

As I grew older, writing about one song a month since 1987, I learned how to let go of the tyranny of originality. Once one becomes dedicated to a writing practice, it is actually very difficult to rip someone off; one’s voice becomes too distinct, which was the case with “Girl From the North Country,” a song which smacks so much of Dylan, I would know its author even without the singing voice. By the mid nineties, I was not so much interested in writing original songs as in writing classic, timeless songs, in trying to stamp them with a distinctive voice while at the same time hoping they would be or could be anonymous.

Last month, I succumbed to Starbuck’s marketing campaign and bought both Dylan offerings: Live at the Gaslight, a very early recording of his first year as a busker in Greenwich Village, and the soundtrack to No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary. Even though I meticulously set my VCR to tape the thing, I watched the documentary the nights it was broadcast, so glued to the set I didn’t get up once to get a drink or go to the bathroom. After watching the Scorsese documentary, I hatched a new project. Katryna and I are scheduled to record our next CD this January, and so far two thirds of the songs are written. All the songs are based on an earlier song, but revamped so they can breath twenty first century air. For example, my new song “Moonlighter” sounds a bit like Dylan’s “Moonshiner”—again, not a song he wrote, but an old Irish drinking song. But “Moonlighter” is about a woman who pines for her beloved Albany, the lord of the land. Is it a throwback to the fifteenth century, or is it a modern allegory? And “Ain’t That Good News,” a pseudo gospel tune refashioned from a choral piece Katryna and I learned in high school, is a kind of doubter’s anthem, a vision of heaven for those weary of contemporary life.

This is not to say I am a great artist because I am unabashedly stealing. It’s just that I’ve come to believe that recycling is more than a good thing to do for the environment. It’s the way we humans pay tribute to each other, stay connected and perhaps even diffuse our egos, recognizing what Native Americans call the Great Soul or Jung calls the Collective Unconscious. My favorite professor at Yale, Fred Robinson, showed us the way poets talk to each other through the centuries: Aeneid spoke to Homer; Dante to Aeneid, Donne to Dante, Shakespeare to everyone (now there’s an artist who knows how to steal!), and TS Eliot to Shakespeare.

This is to say, I don’t call it stealing anymore. I call it friendly.

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  1. Beautiful. Which of your songs includes the Lyrics “Give Away What You we’re Saving, and you will never be alone? Dylans “every grain of sand” popped into my head this morning, next to your song I couldn’t remember the title to…. Jamal

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