I visited the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan this weekend to see Bob Dylan’s Asia Series paintings. The viewing rooms were nearly empty when I was there and the paintings—well I can only say they were disappointing.
Not because of all the hoopla being made over Dylan's alleged copying, but because the works themselves had a kind of amateurish quality. It was clear to me that if Bob Dylan’s name was not on these paintings, they would never have gotten such a prestigious showing.
Back to the hoopla, which not only surprised me, but demonstrated again just how gullible many of Dylan’s fans actually are. The man, himself, admitted he had done some of the paintings from other images. So what? Dylan’s been doing that in his music since the early 1960s.
What I think is confusing to some critics with no sense of creative history is the recording industry’s misleading campaign against music copyright infringement. The Recording Industry of America (RIAA) would have people think that all songs are completely original and come out of thin air. This has led many, especially younger people, to believe the use of other works of art is outright theft.
Most art is copied and reinterpreted. Pete Seeger calls it the “folk process,” the phenomenon in which folk music, folk tales and folklore come into being or are passed from one person or generation to the next.
We Shall Overcome, a key anthem of the civil rights movement, is a good example of the folk process. The lyrics of the song originated from a gospel song published in 1947 by Rev. Charles Tindley. Originally titled We Will Overcome, it was a favorite of Zilphia Horton, then music director of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, Tennessee, a school that trained union organizers. She taught it to Seeger.
The song then became associated with the civil rights movement from 1959, when Guy Carawan stepped in as song leader at Highlander, and the school was the focus of student non-violent activism. It quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem.
Seeger and other famous folk singers in the early 1960s, including Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies, folk festivals, and concerts and helped make it widely known. It was at Highlander that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first heard We Shall Overcome.
Today, the song, with the “shall” contributed by Seeger, is copyrighted by Seeger and Carawan. That’s how the folk process works. The passing of traditional tales and music among musicians from ear to ear.
So is it OK that Bob Dylan copied photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leon Busy and Dimitri Kessel? It’s fine with me, as long as he does a masterpiece like he has done with so many songs. However, his paintings, I’m afraid, don’t live up to that high standard.
Bob Dylan has engaged in the folk process all his life. A few years ago, a poem, written by a 16-year-old Dylan and submitted to his Jewish summer camp’s newspaper, was going up for auction at Christies when alarms went off. The auction house failed to detect that this “Dylan Original,” with a few minor alterations, was actually the words of Hank Snow’s previously recorded song, Little Buddy.
Now 70, Dylan has continuously borrowed lyrics and melodies. At one of Bob Levinson’s Dylan classes that I took, Billy Altman, the music and pop culture writer, did an analysis of Dylan’s album, Together Through Life. Though Altman very much likes Dylan’s work, he traced how songs on the record originated from other artists. For example, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ channels back to Otis Rush’s All Your Love (I Miss Loving) and If You Ever Go to Houston extends to Leadbelly’s Midnight Special.
One song, My Wife’s Home Town, got special mention. Altman noted from the liner notes that the song gives a compositional co-credit to the late Willie Dixon. That’s because Dixon wrote Muddy Water’s sound-alike hit, I Just Want to Make Love to You. Perhaps Dixon’s estate wasn’t so keen on allowing the folk process to work in this case.
Bob Cohen, another guest with Altman at Levinson’s class, was a member of 1960’s folk group, “The New World Singers” with Happy Traum, Gil Turner and Delores Dixon. When they played in the early 60s at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, a young Bob Dylan was often present. Not only did he like the group’s music, but—as Dylan wrote in his memoir, Chronicles—his “part-time girlfriend” at the time was Dixon, a black woman and New York City schoolteacher with a deep alto voice.
One day, Cohen said, Dylan announced that he had a new song and invited the group to the rat and roach-infested basement of Gerdes to hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The rest is history. The New World Singers were the first to record the song, which, Cohen noted, that Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records refused to record unless they changed the words to make it into a love song.
Interestingly, when Cohen talked with Delores Dixon ten years later, after she had left the group, she revealed her then secret relationship with Dylan and told of his writing Blowin’ in the Wind. The song had come from the melody of a spiritual called No More Auction Block for Me, a song that Dylan had probably heard first on a Carter Family record.
Also, Dylan knew it because Delores sang it often at Gerde’s. It was a moving song of freedom written during slavery times, insisting “no more, no more” and sadly reflecting on the “many thousands gone.” Cohen sang it for the class, noting that in the Civil War an abolitionist wrote it down from Negro Union soldiers.
Delores told Cohen that Dylan had gone home with her one night and the next morning was working on Blowin’ in the Wind. When she heard it, she said “Bobby, you just can’t do that.” To Delores, one should not take a traditional song and write new words for it.
But the group felt otherwise and quickly adopted Blowin’ in the Wind. They sang it on stage at Gerdes and asked Dylan to join them. Later, in 1963 and 64, the New World Singers took the song to Mississippi, where it became a civil rights anthem.
Cohen revealed another interesting fact about that first recording. When Ertegun refused to use Blowin’ in the Wind, Moe Asch of Folkways decided to release the song on Broadside Records. It came out even before Dylan’s own version.
However, Delores insisted on singing the chorus as “The answer my friend is blown in the wind.” Cohen said the group couldn’t talk her out of it, and it stands today on that first recording. Apparently, as a school teacher, Delores thought Dylan had used improper English with his use of “blowin.’”
Altman revealed another side of Dylan to the class, one as an aggressive promoter of his compositions from the earliest days. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, when Dylan really got to know Johnny Cash for the first time, Altman said the young singer/songwriter used the occasion to vigorously push his songs to the country legend.
In a motel room at Newport with Joan Baez, Sandy Bull, Jack Elliott and some others, Dylan and Cash sat on the floor trading songs. Baez set up a portable audio player, and that’s where Bob gave Johnny It Ain’t Me, Babe and Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind. In 1965, Johnny Cash and June Carter, released It Ain’t Me Babe. It became a hit for them.
And, in case you wonder, It Ain’t Me Babe was also part of the folk process. The song’s opening line (“Go away from my window...”) was allegedly influenced by musicologist/folk-singer John Jacob Niles’ composition Go ’Way From My Window. Niles was referred to by Dylan as an early influence in Chronicles.
The folk process stories go on and on in Dylan’s life. Barry Kornfeld, a guitarist who played on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, noted that Paul Clayton had a copyright on a song called Who’s Gonna Buy Your Ribbons When I’m Gone. The lyrics are “Ain’t no use to sit and sigh; ain’t no use to sit and wonder why... tell me, who’s gonna buy your ribbons when I’m gone.”
Kornfeld wrote that he was with Clayton one day and Dylan wandered by and said, “Hey, man, that’s a great song. I’m going to use that song.” Dylan then wrote Don’t Think Twice.
When it became a legal issue, the song was actually traced to a number that was exactly the same as the one by Paul Clayton. It was called Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone. So, in effect, everything that Dylan took was actually in the public domain. Dylan and Clayton remained friends even though their publishing companies sued each other.
So, does using the folk process diminish Bob Dylan’s music? Hardly. In virtually all cases, what Dylan borrowed, he improved. Blowin’ in the Wind is most certainly better than No More Auction Block for Me. It’s the way the greatest artists have always worked and will continue to work.
Dylan's paintings are something else. I read that before the Gagosian show Dylan wanted assurances that his art would not embarrass him. The advice he was given was it would not. Sadly, these voices of commerce misled Dylan.
As Altman wrote in his review of Dylan’s Together Through Life, "our reactions say more about us than about him." Only a few good critics truly analyze Dylan’s work well, perhaps because most are lazy, unquestioning, and know little about their subject. Today, we live in a thumbs “up” or “down” media culture. It’s the same with the Asia series paintings.
Yet, fortunately, Dylan continues to work, marching to his own drummer. Altman put it well: “To paraphrase what this man of many famous works famously noted in 1965: ‘You’re an artist. You don’t look back.’” I suspect after this Asia exhibit closes down, Dylan won’t be looking back at this experience.