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Opinion: Love you, Bob Dylan, but you’re no Saul Bellow

Awarding the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan was a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the music of  Robert Zimmerman,  who appropriated his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas. But Dylan also appropriated a lot of his material,  including one of his mega-hits.

This is not news to my family. My older brother James was an accomplished guitarist with a soulful voice. He jerry-rigged a harmonica holder from a coat hanger,  so he could sing, strum and insert instrumentals, just like his hero.


Drafted at 19 and shipped to Germany in 1966, James formed a band with two other GI’s, calling themselves “The Unclassified Three.” Once their colonel heard them, he chartered a bus and sent them on tour to entertain all the troops throughout the country.

Each night his band concluded with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing.”

“It was the anthem for the peace movement, and our audiences — soldiers all — loved it,” said James.

Discharged in 1967, James returned to Evergreen Park and registered for college, but he was pained by a break-up with his girlfriend.

So one night after an evening class, he retreated to the basement, strapped on his ax and sang a mournful version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

Upstairs, TV turned off, we listened to his wailing from below, when suddenly he transitioned us all from regret to righteous anger with the verse that gives me goose-bumps today: “I gave her my heart/but she wanted my soul.”

When we later learned this mega-hit  sprang from the imagination of Paul Clayton, another Greenwich Village troubadour, whose song Dylan plagiarized, we were surprised. But never disenchanted.

Musicians steal: Beatles. Rolling Stones. Michael Jackson.

Often it is unintentional: a past melody stored in the brain, later blossoming  as an “original” composition, the way George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”(1970)  sprang from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (1963). George was sued over that, nonetheless, and lost.

But Dylan stole outright for “Don’t Think Twice.”

He pilfered Clayton’s 1960 melody note for note. Pilfered the lyrics, sneaking his own in between, like an undergrad disguising a copied research paper.

The Youtube recording of Clayton’s composition, “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons,” sounds eerily like a slower, acoustic cover of Dylan’s hit.

Clayton sued and settled out of court. The two actually became friends afterward. Partly because musicians or people in show business aren’t held to the same standards as  literary artists.

But when serious writers cheat, we eliminate them from contention. Sometimes we put them in jail, as we did Clifford Irving for plagiarizing a biography of Howard Hughes (1972).

Officials of other literary awards, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Award, clearly stipulate that unoriginal or previously published work will be disqualified.

The Nobel Committee, however, made new rules. Or it did not do its homework.

The committee may have failed to read revelations in the New York Times that other songs and albums with “words and music by Bob Dylan,” including Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006), bundled multiple “snippets” of published material from Roman poet Ovid, from the Japanese memoir  Confessions of a Yakuza, and from Civil War bard Henry Timrod.

And how could they miss “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Thefts,” a 2011 Rolling Stone article uncovering verses Dylan filched from Tennessee Williams, Dashiell Hammett and others.

If the Nobel Committee’s intent was to cross over into music, it would have been wiser to award Bruce Springsteen, since “Born to Run” already appears in college literature anthologies. The lyrics for “Paradise” in The Rising album is among the most powerfully sensual and intellectually provocative contemplations of the afterlife that this English professor has ever read.

Over the years, my brother performed “Forever Young” at many  weddings, and at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

It’s a  lovely song and an authentic Dylan creation. But it’s cliched phrases and bland diction are what make it universally accepted in churches of every denomination:

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young

Contrast that with lines by a Nobel Laureate of literature:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” — Earnest Hemingway, from A Farewell to Arms

Honoring Dylan with the Nobel Prize is like  giving an Academy Award to the Geico Insurance commercials. We’re crazy about them, but they’re  not in the same league.

Will we ever be sure of the real reason for the Nobel Committee’s decision?

The answer, my friend…

David McGrath is Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY. mcgrathd@dupage.edu

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