Nobel Prize for Stolen Goods?


Readers write me, and I try to respond one on one. And often find grist for this column’s mill. Few have challenged me like Joe Starr of South St. Paul, Minn.

Regular readers will know how much I revere the artistry of Bob Dylan. Mr. Starr recently wrote me to beg to differ. To him, he “is a world class plagiarist” who “cannot sing.” He finds Dylan “an opportunist, dishonest, a slease [sic.] and a thief.”

On the thief count he cites a story of the young Dylan filching some record albums from an acquaintance, saying, “He’ll never miss them; he has so many.” As I understand it, he lifted what was the primer for the core of his style, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, from my late friend, music journalist Paul Nelson, while a teenaged college dropout in Minneapolis. He has also taken lines and melodies from both the public domain and other’s creative work and refashioned them to his own purposes over the years.

Starr’s accusation on that point can’t be denied. Dylan was also a world-class fabulist in his youth, spinning mythic tales about his background when he first arrived on the Greenwich Village folk scene. There’s ample evidence of his opportunistic nature in his rise to fame.

For Starr, such aspects of his story and character are damnable. For me, instead, they are forgivable, if not fascinating, aspects of one of the most interesting personalities not just ever in music but the popular arts in general.

I’m not alone in letting Dylan’s sticky creative fingers slide. Many in the folk community were outraged that he copped Dave Van Ronk’s version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Van Ronk is not among them. As I also understand it with Nelson, he was rather tickled to have had his Smith Anthology spark one of the greatest folk and popular music careers of all time.

And it must be noted that for all he may have borrowed if not all but directly taken, Dylan came up with many (many) volumes more of his own creative brilliance on his own. The column Starr was responding to, was about Dylan’s Nobel Prize, an all-but-undeniable affirmation of his creative significance.

A primary strain in the folk music tradition as well as rock’n’roll is the art of creative borrowing if not thievery. I also don’t feel like I am compromising my moral and ethical code to say that genius sometimes plays by its own rules.

The notion that Dylan can’t sing, however, I regret to inform Starr, is hogwash. His last three albums of pop standards from the pre-rock era disprove that, as does also more than a half-century of delivering songs as effectively as any contemporary singer. But the tone and timbre of his voice, which has varied widely over the years, sets some people’s teeth on edge.

Starr admits, “I only know what I like to listen to. For the past 50 years I have turned to another station whenever a song of Mr. Dylan’s has played.” He’s not alone there. And that’s just fine.

But then he writes, “Luckily, he has a small following and is not played that much.” Dylan may no longer be among the top of the pops, but millions around the world listen to and enjoy his music. The venues he performs may now be smaller, but he continues to consistently tour and fill where he plays on his “Never Ending Tour” for what’s approaching three decades.

Lastly, as someone who knows Dylan’s story intimately, “sleaze” simply doesn’t describe him. “I question who he is as a human being,” Starr concludes. Well, the man is as human and imperfect as they come. But what saddens me, having received such artistic nutrition from Bob Dylan’s work, is that Starr is missing out on that. And certainly can’t see how, even for all his flaws, Bob Dylan is as high-minded and even moralistic as Starr is (and I am).

But to all their own. And I respect those who may beg to differ with me.

Populist Picks

TV Movie: The Wizard of Lies – The HBO film on the days surrounding the fall of Wall Street investment wizard turned fraudster are detailed with an accent on the human element. Great performances by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer humanize a man whose multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme ruined the lives of many.

TV Documentary: Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds – Few pop music albums merit the description “masterpiece” more than this 1966 recording. Insights into how it was made and the atmosphere around it by surviving band members Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine as well as other aspects make this BBC doc playing on Showtime essential viewing for music buffs.

Feature Film: Sully – Whatever one might feel about Clint Eastwood’s politics – they disturb me, but I have to admit he was a gracious gentleman when I interviewed him in 1980 – he’s a skilled filmmaker. His film about the 2009 emergency landing of a US Airways flight in the Hudson River and its pilot is well worth your time, with Tom Hanks shining as its hero.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652