Bob Dylan and Intertextuality

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Tangled Up in New
Bob Dylan and Intertextuality

Appropriation has always played a key role in Bob Dylan's music. Critics and fans alike have found striking similarities between Dylan’s lyrics and the words of other writers. On his album “Love and Theft,” a fan spotted many passages similar to lines from “Confessions of a Yakuza,” a gangster novel written by Junichi Saga. Other fans have pointed out the numerous references to lines of dialogue from movies and dramas that appear throughout Dylan’s works. He has stolen words from Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more recently, Henry Timrod in his latest album, "Modern Times" (Rich 1). Culturally, we have reached a point in time where revisiting past movements and styles have become the norm in music, literature and other media. The challenge for all creative works in this era has become more of an exercise in borrowing from one's influences rather than drawing from one's invention or original thought. And you know what? It's okay. We cannot help but be influenced by what we see; that's just being human.

Tracing influence is a very hard task, one that can never be complete because of the countless stimuli encountered every time anyone opens his or her eyes and ears, something true for both author/artist and reader. Dylan could not possibly be aware of all of the ideas that influenced him over his lifetime. But from the influences he is aware of, why should he be expected to report every single line he has appropriated into his lyrics?

According to Motoko Rich's article, Scott Warmuth, a disc jockey in Albuquerque and a former music director for WUSB, a public radio station in Stony Brook, Long Island, discovered the similarities between Dylan’s lyrics and Henry Timrod’s poetry.. Mr. Warmuth said he wasn’t surprised to find that Mr. Dylan had leaned on a strong influence when writing his lyrics.

“I think that’s the way Bob Dylan has always written songs,” he said. “It’s part of the folk process, even if you look from his first album until now” (Rich 1).

“More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours,” the 65-year-old Dylan sings in “When the Deal Goes Down,” one of the songs on “Modern Times.” Compare that to these lines from Timrod’s “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”:

A round of precious hours
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers. (Timrod, qtd. in Rich 1)

To Warmuth, who found ten phrases echoing Timrod’s poetry on “Modern Times,” Dylan’s work is still original. “You could give the collected works of Henry Timrod to a bunch of people, but none of them are going to come up with Bob Dylan songs” (Rich 1).

The Bible has been another important resource for Dylan's writing (Gilmour 8), but it is still only one of many influences for his music. The interaction of these influences with one another is extremely significant, for this is essentially how Dylan's ideas came to flourish in the music industry. This is brought about in the subject of intertextuality.

At its simplest form, the term intertextuality has been used to mean source identification. The word is credited to Julia Kristeva, who recognized the influence of different "texts" on writing, reading and interpretation of literature (O'Day 259). It developed out of concern about the relationship of the classical literary tradition with contemporary works of literature. It was also concerned with the role that culture and society played in the construction of literary meaning and expression. Although the term is important to consider when identifying an author's influences, it has often been viewed as an oversimplification. Julia Kristeva once referred to the word as the "banal sense of 'study of sources'" (qtd. in Gilmour 14) and Harold Bloom described it as the "wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting" (qtd. in Gilmour 14). What is at issue here is interpretation....
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