A short time after The New Yorker runs a critical appraisal of Bob Dylan that focuses on his sound rather than his lyrics, the new Dylan album provokes a mini-controversy over Dylan’s borrowing from an obscure 19th-century poet. And in due course, a minor celebrity excoriates Dylan for being a thief. Well, she sort of let’s him off the hook at the end — he’s a bad boy, but that’s what we love about him — but the coda is as trivializing as the rest of the piece.
Is there no end to the patronizing upbraiding of artists in the name of the misconceived enterprise to make sure that no cultural goods are ever “stolen” and any stolen goods are properly credited to their creator? If Dylan, who is at once both the most original and most appropriative musician of the last 40 years, is subjected to this kind of needless abuse, is anyone immune?
Francis Scott Key plagiarized the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner, and Abraham Lincoln didn’t write all of the Gettysburg Address. Can we stop now?