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(Photo credit: Douglas Gilbert)

Music

Did Bob Dylan really plagiarise his Nobel Prize speech?

@TomTaylorFO

There is an almost joyous irony to a songwriter receiving a Nobel Prize for literature and plagiarising the speech. All artists liberate, as one of Bob Dylan’s favourite composers, the inimitable Moondog, once said: “I deny that there is such a thing as originality. All an artist can do is bring his personality to bear. If he is true to himself, he can’t help but be different, even unique, for no two persons are alike.” Thus, maybe Dylan’s liberal appropriation is just his personality coming to bear, but for some, the speech he penned was a little too close to downright plagiarism.

So, what exactly did Dylan apparently plagiarise? Well, after the dust had settled Slate Magazine unearthed 20 similarities between a SparkNotes article on Moby Dick and the speech that Dylan submitted. The similarities came to light when Dylan used an apparent quote from the novel, but the lines in question don’t actually appear in any current edition. Thereafter, his speech was put through the wringer and the similarities came to light. 

You can see some of the most stark examples below:

  • Bob Dylan: “There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom.”
  • SparkNotes: “One of the ships … carries Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom.”
  • Bob Dylan: “Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But… he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”
  • SparkNotes: “Captain Boomer has lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick… Boomer, happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”
  • Bob Dylan: “He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil.”
  • SparkNotes: “He sees this whale as the embodiment of evil.”

It was also pointed out that at no point in Moby Dick do the phrases “embodiment of evil”, “lust for vengeance” or “predicts doom” appear in Herman Melville’s novel. Thus, many people questioned whether he had, in fact, lifted sections from the SparkNotes critique of the classic novel as he adlibbed a style akin to Jack Kerouac album Poetry for the Beat Generation for his performative speech. 

As it happens, this is far from Dylan’s first run-in with the claim of plagiarism. Even Joni Mitchell scorned the voice of a generation, “Bob Dylan is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I,” she said. And his 2001 album Love & Theft fell under the spotlight when similarities were found between the lyrics and the obscure book Confessions of a Yakuza.

However, in fairness to Dylan, he is perhaps the most plagiarised artist around in music. As the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once told MovieMaker Magazine: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul,” his famous quote states, before continuing: “If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”

It is a notion that French New Wave hero Jean-Luc Godard also celebrated when he said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And Pablo Picasso joined the act when he commented: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a line which was actually also ironically stolen from T.S. Eliot. In short, what we’re saying is that the evidence displayed below is not necessarily a condemnation, and a very liberal view could, in fact, celebrate it as an upcycling of art into something new that serves as glowing addition to our dismal daily lives. Essentially, whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly not foregone.