Comment Of The Week: The Case Of Mitchell Vs. Dylan

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Joni Mitchell has accused Bob Dylan of plagiarism. Does she have a case? One of our readers and one of our writers weighs in:

To say Dylan is a plagiarist is at best disingenuous (and at worst a flat-out lie). Borrowing a scattered line here or there does not constitute plagiarism. He may or may not have gotten the opening line for “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, but how does that diminish the staggering richness and complexity of the composition as a whole? Theoretically, it’s not any different than Jean-Luc Godard borrowing a shot from Sam Fuller.

Dylan’s reputation is absolutely towering — he’s arguably the most iconic and important still-living figure in American popular culture (certainly in American music). And that reputation was chiefly built upon his lyrical prowess. To suggest that prowess was essentially stolen is, frankly, ridiculous.

— Ty

I have had to train myself not to read any more profiles of Joni Mitchell. Her all-consuming bitterness seems based on the fact that she’s not ‘popular’ anymore. She had an absolutely fabulous run of albums from ’67 to about ‘74. As her ability to compose complex-but-accessible tunes diminished and she didn’t tour, album sales, understandably, dropped off. Unlike, say, her jazzy partners in Steely Dan, she doesn’t understand that fancy chords and poetic lyrics don’t always mean “song.” She doesn’t write anything anymore you feel like humming. Coming from the world of art and poetry, she doesn’t get the simple concept that these need to be songs first and ‘works of art’ maybe later.

Why does she do ‘rare’ interviews, only to dis, not just Bob, but everyone?

Joni, you had a great run and should feel fortunate. But you are now the worst possible cliche: the bitter old lady.

— Peter Gerstenzang

Let’s look at things from both sides now. Does anyone care to defend Ms. Mitchell? Write in and let us know.


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  1. Joni likes to actually speak what is on her mind. God, that’s refreshing. If you hear what she says in context, it always has a point. In the case of Dylan, Joni’s comments are a reflection of a lifetime thinking about concepts of authenticity and artifice, and how they are reflected in popular music. Dylan, in her mind, has created a “persona” through which he conveys his art. Joni does it too, in many songs, but goes to great pains to separate the various personae from that which is directly personal. As for the plagiarism, I can’t speak to Dylan, but I do know that Mitchell makes the distinction, in her own work, between that which is and that which is not “borrowed.”

    This isn’t about sides, it isn’t about Team Jacob vs. Team Edward. It is a genius talking about another genius. If you can’t defend Joni for speaking honestly, who can you defend? The only person who comes out looking bad here is the interviewer. I mean, what? No follow-up questions?

  2. Zimmerman’s plagiarisms have been increasingly outrageous throughout his entire life, culminating in shameless purloin of wholesale phrases and sentences from famous books and authors in Chronicles. For those who know the true extent of it, which few do, this advertising con man with the gone voice is one of the worst plagiarists in the entire history of American entertainment.

    He makes me sick.

    Go Joni.

    Thank you.

  3. > she doesn’t understand that fancy chords and poetic lyrics don’t always mean “song.”
    Would you include ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ in that characterization? I keep trying to get into it but where are the melodies?

  4. Has anyone HEARD the interview….her tone of voice and delivery….as all Dylan listeners know it is how it is sung/said…as much as what is sung/said…so maybe before everyone goes nuts….maybe a listen should be had.

  5. David you’re just being idiotic. Are you one of those people that if they say what’s really on their mind they’re golden? If so then you have a very jaded look on things. Dylan has taken stuff from here and there, people have taken from him as well. Anyone remember Hootie And The Blowfish and their deliberate swipe of, word for word, Idiot Wind and no credit to Bob? Music now is different than it was 30-40 years ago, there has been so much writing and songs that how in the world could someone like Dylan who has released 45+ albums continue to write something even remotely original that has never been done before? All this crap now is regurgitated pop that will be forgotten in a year.

    As for Joni’s comments, sounds like there’s some envy green in her pallette. I honestly, swear to god, can not recite ONE title from her discography or songlist. I’ve been listening to Dylan now for 30 years and he’s led me to Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, John Hiatt, Robert Johnson, Jakob Dylan…and I even know who Joni is because of him – but yet I couldn’t tell you one of her songs. She is unimportant in songwriting as a whole, no one will study her to learn, no one rightfully will remember her as an iconic figure on the muisic scene…she was a girl that had a few good albums in the late 60s-early 70s. Dylan is in the Encyclopedia, the history books, and president’s have quoted him.

    Let’s really get this in context and realize it’s just like Garth Brooks calling Hank Williams a hack…pointless and not worth the digital page it was reported on 😉

  6. Joni is wrong about Dylan. She is very talented but also very bitter. When she opened for Dylan in ’99 she berated audience members who were not paying attention to her set in an angry tirade the likes of which I have never heard from a professional musician. Many of us were paying attention and enjoying the lite-jazz set until she went off. Whatever has made her so angry and bitter has nothing to do with Dylan, who is easily one of most talented songwriters, singers, performing and recording artists in American history.

  7. I agree entirely with Peter concerning the plagiarism issue. However your article makes Joni appear somewhat rational, focusing on that one issue. Please remember that in the same interview Joni attacked Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Madonna (I enjoyed that part) and her attack on Bob also included his “fake” name, his “fake” voice (what?), and she said everything about Bob is a deception (I liked that part as well). Poor Joni, it’s not all about you anymore. Now that you’ve gotten your last 10 minutes of fame slagging people, please focus on getting well before people start dragging the skeletons out of your closet.

  8. Joni’s opinion here IS perfectly justified. When you copy verbatin entire verses and chunks of poems from long dead poets, and give no credit to them as he did on Modern Times,, you leave yourself open to criticism. C.Ricks below, probably THE most loving and authoritative Dylanologists in the world made the statements below. It’s a very sophistacted way of calling Dylan out on his plagiarism, at least on Modern Times. Dylan was a thief on Modern Times. He also stole much from that Japanese novelist on his “Love and Theft” album, again, clearcut plagiarism.

    I love Bob, and he’s such an icon he’s a sacred cow, but a theiving one at that.

    “Christopher Ricks, a professor of the humanities at Boston University who wrote “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” a flattering study of the musician, said, “I may be too inclined to defend, but I do think it’s characteristic of great artists and songsters to immediately draw on their predecessors.” He added that it was atypical for popular musicians to acknowledge their influences.

    Mr. Ricks said that one important distinguishing factor between plagiarism and allusion, which is common among poets and songwriters, is that “plagiarism wants you not to know the original, whereas allusion wants you to know.”

    “When Eliot says, ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ — to have a line ending ‘to be’ when the most famous line uttered by Hamlet is ‘to be or not to be’ — then part of the fun and illumination in the Eliot poem is that you should know it,” he said. But he added: “I don’t think Dylan is alluding to Timrod. I don’t think people can say that you’re meant to know that it’s Timrod.”

  9. Oh Joni…after decades of being a megalomaniac, I see you still haven’t gotten a clue. Sad really. I remember being at your concert on the Boston Common in…was it 1984 0r 83?…when you stood up…through your guitar down saying….. ( just before storming off the stage) .. “when you people are ready to sit down and shut up, I’ll come out and play”. I stayed just long enough to join a massive chorus of boos before leaving. It’s truly sad that you are at the late stages of your life and still remain such a narcissistic soul. Joni dear…I think you created some beautiful music “back in the day”…my favorite being “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughters too. You know…the albums where you relied on the talents of serious jazz musicians?…yeah…those albums.

    I do thank you Joni for reminding me of Dylan’s greatness. I’m listening to “Blood On The Tracks” as I type. I hadn’t listened to it in many years…what an album of pure genius.

    As to being authentic, Dylan’s contribution to music and culture is undeniable. That he contributed massively to *creating* the genre you embraced and *followed* is only slightly debatable. Yet no one debates your authenticity Joni…as a musically talented, but deeply troubled, misguided, authentic megalomaniac.

  10. It was written: “Does anyone care to defend Ms. Mitchell?” Frankly, no. She’s not worth defending. I gave up on her a long time ago and her opinion about Bob Dylan — or any other musician, writer, artist, or other creative type — simply doesn’t matter.

  11. To say about BOB “When you copy verbatin entire verses and chunks of poems” is a blatant exageration. Two or three lines here and half a sentence there, remiscent of previous poets verses, does not “verbatin entire verses and chunks of poems” make.

    Even if you can find 50 lines Bob may have borrowed from previous poets, that is less than 1 thousandth of his body of work (song-poems alone). Less than 0.01%.

    Here. Let the Math tell the TRUE story about BOB:

    Plagiarist or Borrower = 0.01%,
    Unique Poetic Genius = 99.9% = The greatest song writer of all times.

    No one can even pretend to DESERVE comparison.

  12. Joni says: “and his name …..fake.”
    But Joni’s “real name” is Roberta Joan Anderson.
    Joni’s not only a bitter narcissist, she’s a hypocrite too.

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