What songs did Bob Dylan steal from?
May 22, 2009 12:59 PM   Subscribe

What old or traditional songs has Bob Dylan bogarted for his own use?

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, I like Dylan's song I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine off John Wesley Harding. I was watching a Pete Seeger documentary recently that featured his performance of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," and I couldn't believe the similarity of these two lyrics; the phrasing and cadence of these lines was exactly the same, except replacing "St. Augustine" for "Joe Hill Last Night."

I already knew Dylan writes this way. There are other, more apparent examples of Dylan taking a phrase or sentence (or song) and reappropriating it for his own uses, such as
Rollin' and Tumblin' off Modern Times. Just to be clear, I don't find this controversial at all, that's simply how folk music works. But after hearing "Joe Hill" I'm starting to realize that there must be many more examples of this that I'm completely unaware of. Do you know of any?

I've been looking to get more into old folk, country and blues lately, but it all seems a bit overwhelming to this listener's 21st century ears. However, I think if I could listen to a song and draw a connection from there to somewhere in Dylan's work, it would make it that much more interesting to me.
So please, your examples of an old-timey song that Dylan pays homage to, references, or just plain flat-out steals?
posted by malapropist to media & arts (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This topic came up very recently. An early example of his "borrowing".
posted by kimdog at 1:11 PM on May 22, 2009

There's abut a billion of these, but the first one that springs to my mind is Obviously Five Believers from Blonde on Blonde, the melody of which seems to have been taken from Me & My Chauffeur Blues by Memphis Minnie.

Cry a While from Love and Theft seems to have taken it's main lyric from
I Cried for You by Billie Holiday.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 1:19 PM on May 22, 2009

well, any of his talking blues songs reckon back to woodie guthrie (and tex williams before him and Christopher Allen Bouchillon before him)

the lyrical structure of a hard rain's a-gonna fall is apparently based on Lord Randell

blowin' in the wind uses the tune of an old slave spiritual.

music doesn't exist in a vacuum, folk music even less so (especially folk music inspired by country music).

posted by nadawi at 1:21 PM on May 22, 2009

Not an old song, but a contemporary one, though it is a direct reference: apparently Bob thought Bobbi Gentry's “Ode to Billy Joe” was a ridiculous song, so he did a song with The Band on The Basement Tapes which parodies it, to hilarious effect, called “Clothesline Saga.”
posted by koeselitz at 1:24 PM on May 22, 2009

John Jacob Niles wrote a song called "Go 'Way From My Window" - as he was an influence on dylan one can only think the first line of it ain't me babe is related.
posted by nadawi at 1:26 PM on May 22, 2009

There's also The Girl from The North Country Fair, which contains clear parallels to the old tune Scarborough Fair.
posted by koeselitz at 1:31 PM on May 22, 2009

Dylan covers two songs by the Mississippi Sheiks on World Gone Wrong: the title song and "Blood in My Eye". Although that's not exactly what you're after (I think), I'm going to mention it because folks ought to know about the Sheiks who recorded in the 20s and 30s.
The structure and lyrics of "Lord Randall" ("O where have you been, Lord Randall, my son?/O where have you been my handsome young man?") and "A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall" are similar, though Dylan leans on the son's response, adding to its intensity. Dylan does a lot of that, especially early on when he's hanging out with folkies all the time. I think he expected his audience to get it, just as I think he meant people to get the connection between the "Joe Hill" and "St.Augustine" songs .
posted by CCBC at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2009

ah-ha! i knew i saw this page somewhere

song by song influences on dylan

posted by nadawi at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Sadly, the Rolling Stone article linked in the recent Gothamist article is really fluffy, citing single lines that closely resemble other lines and phrases, not whole sets of lyrics. Apparently, Dylan has also borrowed from Henry Timrod, a fellow who was "sometimes known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy," and there's a 2003 New York Times article titled "Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?" His latest album is largely co-written by a "non-performing member" of Grateful Dead. All that seems to point to borrowed fragments, which doesn't seem to be what you're looking for.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:33 PM on May 22, 2009

There's this article in Independent
posted by zzazazz at 1:37 PM on May 22, 2009

The melody for "Times they are a changin" was ripped from a Hamish Henderson song called the Banks of Sicily. I'd recommend Henderson to anyone interested in folk music btw.
posted by fire&wings at 1:39 PM on May 22, 2009

Supposedly he lifted some lines for Love and Theft from a book about the Yakuza.
posted by zzazazz at 1:40 PM on May 22, 2009

(there are more examples of Scottish folk music's influence on Dylan in my first link)
posted by fire&wings at 1:42 PM on May 22, 2009

Another couple: Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat has a lot in common with Automobile Blues by Lightnin' Hopkins (of which I can only appear to find a circus version online). High Water (for Charlie Patton) is (unsurprisingly) a nod to High Water by Patton.

A compilation rather than a song, but he took a lot from Harry Smith's
Anthology of American Folk Music, and not without good reason - it's full of great stuff.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2009

Sorry, messed that earlier post up. More examples such as -

The traditional Scottish ballad Lord Randal

"O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?

And where ha you been, my handsome young man?"

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

article includes -

Lord Randal > A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall

Banks of Sicily > The Times They Are A'Changin
Mary Hamilton > The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Waly, Waly > Lay Down your Weary Tune
posted by fire&wings at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2009

Oh my god thank you, nadawi, for that link! And thanks as well to everyone else. Filthy light thief, fragments are exactly what I'm looking for, such as your example of Dylan borrowing from Henry Timrod for "When the Deal Goes Down." That's a great example of this kind of thing, where the lyric is perhaps not exactly the same but definitely borrowed and rearranged, or at least clearly inspired. Keep them coming, I'm sure there are about as many of these examples as there are Dylan songs in general.
posted by malapropist at 1:51 PM on May 22, 2009

I don't think covers really fit here, but Dylan did an awesome cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow" on his first or second album. If you're used to it, it makes the version from Oh Brother sound lame lame lame.
posted by mikel at 2:05 PM on May 22, 2009

Dylan has always written from the perspective of the folk tradition, so it could be argued that all of his songs do some bogarting. It could also be argued that this is why he's so damned good.
posted by philip-random at 2:36 PM on May 22, 2009

Dylan's Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie is the traditional Brennan on the Moor, with different lyrics. Well, mostly different.
posted by Flunkie at 3:14 PM on May 22, 2009

"On A Night Like This" has the same chords as the Blue Danube Waltz.
posted by Jode at 3:15 PM on May 22, 2009

One of my favorites is "Percy's Song," which adapts a line from the folk song "Oh, the Wind and Rain."
posted by Knappster at 4:14 PM on May 22, 2009

Bob Dylan's Dream = Lord Franklin
posted by Miko at 4:46 PM on May 22, 2009

I've been looking to get more into old folk, country and blues lately, but it all seems a bit overwhelming to this listener's 21st century ears. However, I think if I could listen to a song and draw a connection from there to somewhere in Dylan's work, it would make it that much more interesting to me.

THis is definitely a path that many of us have followed, from contemporary folk-revival-ish music peeling back the layers to the rootsier origins of the music. I want to mention that this doesn't have to be seen as some paucity of originality for Dylan - on the contrary, he's taking part in a centuries-old tradition of adaptation and what you could call 'remixing' of traditional music. Once you do get into old-time music, you'll find sometimes a dozen or so variants of a single song - melody the same, lyrics different; melody changed, lyrics changed, but still recognizable; tempo changed; songs referring to other songs; reuse of single verses from one song in entirely different or new songs; and so on. Woody Guthrie is another prime example of an artist who got famous for his 'songwriting' doing this, but there are many more, and to people like him there was nothing unusual about it - it was how the music of the people had been treated for a long time. Take a tune, write new words. Change a tune up a little. Mix up the verses. Add a verse, drop a verse, reshape, renew.

posted by Miko at 4:50 PM on May 22, 2009

This isn't a song, but it's relevant: the album title "Love and Theft" is lifted from the title of a book by Eric Lott about race relations and appropriation in American black-face minstrelsy.

This article
by Jonathan Lethem begins by talking about Dylan's acts of love and theft.
posted by umbú at 6:25 PM on May 22, 2009

Another Pete Seeger one is his version of Wagoner's Lad, the melody of which corresponds closely to Dylan's Farewell, Angelina.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 3:59 AM on May 23, 2009

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is the second album by Bob Dylan although for some reasons many people still believe it's his first album. Released on May 27 1963 the album was not an instant commercial success but with time it sure will become legendary. Dylan is here with his harp and acoustic (plays some keyboards too) backed by studio musicians on guitar bass piano and drums and John Hammond produces. The result is a mix of legendary tracks and some other lesser tracks. The major tracks on Freewheelin' are "Blowin' in the Wind" "Masters of War" "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right". I like the traditional track "Corrina, Corrina" but I really prefer the outtakes version without the album arrangements.  And "Oxford Town" a  song that was very relevant back then although a little bit short. I always liked the "Bob Dylan's Dream" lyrics but with "Bob Dylan's Blues" on side one of the vinyl that made two tracks with his name on the title. I don't know if some people thought it was strange or even if other artists did that  before him.

Once again one  wonders why Dylan didn't choose some of the gems that we can hear in the outtakes. Indeed this will be a recurring oddity that will happen throughout Dylan's career: for most of his album he was bad at deciding the final track-list. I guess it's part of his "I do what the hell I want" personality. One can argue why tracks like  "Down The Highway" or "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance" were retained for the final track-list but songs like  "Worried Blues"  "Rocks and Gravel" and the beautiful "Let Me Die In My Footsteps" were rejected. Seems unbelievable.

On Freewheelin' you can hear some of Dylan's most beautiful protest songs like "Hard Rain" and "Masters of War" if you like that style. "Hard Rain" is so beautiful after all these years it hurts. Dylan said he wanted each lines to sound like the beginning of a song. And the bitter "Masters of War" is in my opinion still as relevant today as it was in 1963. About "Blowin' in the Wind" which had become the anthem of a generation the strange thing is it's not the tune that will make him famous (he'll have to wait for "The Times They're A Changin" for that) since Peter Paul and Mary made an instant hit of it so most people didn't know it was actually Dylan who penned the song. Later he will be accused of
plagiarism for borrowing the melody to the traditional song."No More Auction Block". Also "Girl from the North Country"  was a remake from an old English traditional: "Scarborough Fair". And that was the reason why he wrote "Restless Farewell" on his next album (that was based on the Irish folk song "The Parting Glass") that will be made solely of Dylan's originals:  "so I'll make my stand and remain as I am and bid farewell and not give a damn..." But we'll see that when I'll review "The Times They're A Changin".

Freewheelin' is the album of a songwriter that just found his style and the first album seems miles away from it. Just a word about the art cover: it could be his best. Legendary.


1.Blowin' in the Wind

2.Girl from the North Country
3.Masters of War
4.Down the Highway
5.Bob Dylan's Blues
6.A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
7.Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
8.Bob Dylan's Dream
9.Oxford Town
10.Talkin' World War III Blues
11.Corrina Corrina
12.Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance
13.I Shall Be Free

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