Did Bob Dylan crib from SparkNotes for his Nobel lecture?

Bob Dylan performing at the Hop Farm music festival in Paddock Wood on June 30, 2012.
Bob Dylan performing at the Hop Farm music festival in Paddock Wood on June 30, 2012.PHOTO: AFP

(Washington Post) - Bob Dylan has been accused of cribbing. Again.

Slate's Andrea Pitzer suggested the musician took parts of his Nobel Prize for literature lecture from SparkNotes, the online study guides students often use to cram for an English test when they've failed to read a classic novel.

If it's true, it wouldn't be the only odd thing about the lecture. Dylan was named the Nobel winner in October. All Nobel Prize winners are required to write a lecture, and they have six months after the awards ceremony to deliver it. The winners generally give it in person, but Dylan skipped the ceremony and recorded the speech in Los Angeles, turning it in to the Swedish Academy many months later.

In the recorded lecture, he spoke of several novels that inspired him, including Moby-Dick. Pitzer first grew suspicious when reading a blog post by writer Ben Greenman, in which he suggested Dylan invented a new line for the already lengthy novel. When describing the part when a typhoon hits the ship, which is interpreted in various ways by the crew members, Dylan recalled a line from the book: "Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness." Only, Greeman suggested, that line isn't in any edition of the book.

"It appears, from all available evidence, that Dylan invented the quote and inserted it into his reading of Moby-Dick," Greenman wrote. "Was it on purpose? Was it the result of a faulty memory? Was it an egg, left in the lawn to be discovered in case it's Eastertime too?"

Pitzer provided a potential answer. Because part of the line does appear somewhere: the SparkNotes character description of Father Mapple, which described him as "an example of someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness". In fact, Pitzer found, "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."

Alex Lubet, a University of Minnesota music professor who has taught classes on Dylan, said even if he borrowed from SparkNotes, it shouldn't be a problem. "His lecture is wild and strange," Lubet told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's meant to be a post-modern work of art. Any kind of a collage technique is fair game."

David Yaffe, a Syracuse University professor of humanities, agreed. "I was very moved by his speech and I'm not any less moved knowing this. I don't find myself feeling like a dupe," he told the newspaper. "He's on the road all the time. He just turned 76. You could see him wanting to take a few shortcuts. I don't think it makes him any less Bob Dylan."

Dylan himself, meanwhile, hasn't responded publicly. But that's par for the course for the musician, who has been accused of plagiarism almost from the time he moved from Minneapolis to New York City and changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan.

His first record, the eponymous Bob Dylan, was filled with original songs alongside traditional songs such as Man Of Constant Sorrow and covers of blues tunes like Mississippi Fred McDowell's Freight Train Blues. This was common practice at the time, as evidenced by Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and the Beatles.

When he released his next album, the mostly original The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, the following year, one reviewer wrote, "In barely over a year, a young plagiarist had been reborn as a songwriter of substance, and his first album of fully realised original material got the 1960s off their musical starting block." Others, though, said on that record "he rewrote songs by Lead Belly and Henry Thomas, which Dylan said was part of the folk tradition, and that he borrowed the melody for Blowin' In The Wind from a 16th century Protestant hymn", according to the Star Tribune.

These types of accusations followed him all the way through his trilogy of comeback albums in the early 2000s. He was accused of taking lines he sings on his 2006 record Modern Times from Henry Timrod, often called the poet laureate of the Confederacy. Critics attacked 2001's perhaps winkingly titled Love And Theft, after claiming he borrowed lines from Junichi Saga's Confessions Of A Yakuza.

By then, Joni Mitchell had gotten in on the action, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2010 of Dylan, "Bob 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."

Once, he was even accused of cribbing lines from a New Orleans travel brochure.

After a lifetime of being called a plagiarist, a 71-year-old Dylan finally gave a lengthy response in Rolling Stone in 2012, calling his critics "wussies and p--ies". "It's an old thing - it's part of the tradition. It goes way back," he said, referring to the practice in folk music of blending lyrics and riffs from various sources to create new compilations.

He continued:"In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It's true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront? Who's been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it's so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get."

"I'm working within my art form. It's that simple," he concluded. He added, "It's called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it."

In the interview, he made clear he wasn't hiding the fact that he uses quotes. After all, his lines don't always mirror those of obscure poets.

In the film Bronco Billy, for example, Clint Eastwood said, "I'm looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr." In Dylan's Sweetheart Like You, he sang: "When I met you, baby/You didn't show no visible scars/You could ride like Annie Oakley/You could shoot like Belle Starr."

His lifting sometimes seems to blatant to some, but many don't consider it plagiarism.

As The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote: "He was simply doing what he has always done: writing songs that are information collages. Allusions and memories, fragments of dialogue and nuggets of tradition have always been part of Mr Dylan's songs, all stitched together like crazy quilts."

There's an adage: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." If the Nobel Committee deemed Dylan great enough for one of its prestigious awards, then, maybe here's the proof.