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In re: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize lecture

780 Holmes Road Revisited,* or, Where’s the Art, Bob?

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been an exponent of the “folk process,” wherein an artist appropriates an extant song, modifies it to the degree that now there are two songs, which may appear to be siblings, but not identical twins.

Blowin’ in the Wind is an example, adapted from the African-American spiritual No More Auction Block; no one would confuse the two, nor would anyone deny that the new song has it’s own merit.

Whether or not one improves the other or amounts to a meritorious extension of the other, is irrelevant – upon composition of the new work, a new discussion begins.

But Dylan also has simply appropriated the folk process product of others when it suited him, such as on his first album, when he recorded Dave Van Ronk’s adaptation of the traditional folk song House of the Rising Sun, depriving his mentor Van Ronk the full benefit of his own artful work.

Dave Van Ronk was a big man, got over it, and eventually was delighted to point out that Dylan eventually stopped performing the House of the Rising Sun after Eric Burdon and The Animals had a big hit with it, for fear of being dissed for ripping them off!

Now there’s news that Bob Dylan has taken the “folk process” to a whole new level, of particular interest to us in the Berkshires, because he’s playing fast and loose with Moby-Dick. In order to fulfil his obligation to the Swedish Academy, which blew the world’s mind last year when it awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature, he delivered a lecture on June 4, just 2 days before the $923,000 cash part of the prize would have turned to dust.

In it, he said Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey “have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school…” and he wanted to tell us about them. Regardless of precisely when Bob Dylan attended “grammar school,” it’s clear he’s referencing a long-ago time, and so we wouldn’t begrudge him a little “googling” in preparing his remarks.

But, especially with a million bucks at stake, one would expect a little more “folk process” than what Mr. Dylan delivered. If you google “Moby-Dick,” the website SparkNotes appears – and if you read the Moby Dick section of Dylan’s lecture, you’ll see enough of SparkNotes to earn a grammar school kid a failing grade for plagiarism.

As reported by Andrea Pitzer in Slate:

“Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site. And most of the key shared phrases in these passages (such as “Ahab’s lust for vengeance” in the above lines) do not appear in the novel Moby-Dick at all.”

I’ll bet there are a thousand MFA candidates in writing programs across America, and not a few tenured professors too, who would pay good money for a chance to help Bob Dylan edit his shopping list! Why, then, wouldn’t he reach out for help on a $923,000 speech – at least enough help that would merit a passing grade in grammar school?

*780 Holmes Road is the Pittsfield, MA address of Arrowhead, where Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick; Bob Dylan’s most famous album is called “Highway 61 Revisited.”