Did Bob Dylan plagiarise speech?

WASHINGTON • Bob Dylan has been accused of cribbing again.

Slate writer 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.

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, Greenman suggested, that line is not 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," he 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".

Pitzer listed about 20 sentences from the portion of Dylan's lecture on Moby-Dick that closely resembled phrases or ideas on the SparkNotes website.

Professor Alex Lubet, a University of Minnesota music professor who has taught classes on Dylan, said even if the singer borrowed from SparkNotes, it should not be a problem. "His lecture is wild and strange," he 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."

Dylan, 76, has not responded publicly. But that is 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.

After a lifetime of being called a plagiarist, he finally gave a lengthy response in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012.

"In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition," he said. "That certainly is true. It's true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it, but not me."

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."

There is 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 is the proof.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Did Bob Dylan plagiarise speech?'. Print Edition | Subscribe