Dylan: What's Yours Is Mine, And What's Mine Is Mine, Too
from the privatizing-the-commons dept
We’ve pointed out many times before the absolute hypocrisy of those who constantly build on the works of others, but go ballistic should anyone seek to build on their works. Where it gets really ridiculous is when people insist that, if you don’t like things like this, you should “create your own.” Often they’ll point to the works of famous musicians as examples of people who “made their own.” For example, a year ago, we wrote about a music industry lawyer who insisted that folks like Bob Dylan would avoid the music industry altogether, if it weren’t for the protections afforded under the old system. So, it’s quite interesting to see this piece in the Irish Times that points out that Bob Dylan had a nasty habit of copying from everyone else, but threatening anyone who tried to build on his own works:
This was very much the state of folk song when Dylan came on the scene. It occupied an ambivalent terrain between originality (and therefore private ownership) and collective tradition (and thus common possession). Dylan ruthlessly exploited this ambiguity. He treated everybody else’s folk songs as a common storehouse he could raid at will. He didn’t just filch songs from other people’s repertoires; he stole their arrangements. (As late as 1992, he lifted Nic Jones’s arrangement of Canadee-I-O, wholesale and without acknowledgment.) He did this on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Martin Carthy, who has also just turned 70, taught him Scarborough Fair, which Dylan then recycled as Girl from the North Country.
But he treated his own songs as private property: what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own. The assertion of his individualism involved in “going electric” was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist and therefore as the sole owner of his own songs.
We can say now that Dylan’s ruthlessness was that of any genius and that his exploitation of these ambiguities was justified by what he produced from them. But it’s hard to blame people for not seeing it quite that way at the time. Dylan was doing something significant in the history not just of modern culture but of modern capitalism. He was fencing in what had been common land, establishing property rights over a collective heritage. He wasn’t alone in this and it was part of a much bigger process. But those who yelped in pain were not entirely contemptible.
While I have issues with the use of “stole” to describe Dylan’s actions, this sort of story is pretty common. Artists who are often held up as being “original” have frequently copied from those who came before, quite freely. And that’s a good thing. I’m wondering if those who run to our comments to declare “make your own!” will also complain about Dylan “profiting off the works of others,” or if they’ll be blinded by the (worthwhile) cultural establishment of Dylan, and come up with excuses for why his use of others’ works was okay…