Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lewis Hyde: Common as Air: Revolution Art and Ownership

I finished reading a new book by Lewis Hyde a couple of days ago – it is titled ‘Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership’. I was going to post a 4 page summary of it but decided that was too long for a blog post - get the book and have a read yourself it is great.

I was interested in raising one part of the book here though - that with respect to the song writing style of Bob Dylan. Hyde Writes:

“By his own account, Dylan is ‘not a melodist’, which explains in part the largeness of his debts to borrowed tunes. A musicologist at the Library of Congress, Todd Harvey, has tracked down the sources behind the first seventy songs Dylan recorded. ‘Almost every song... had a clear predecessor”, Harvey writes; his documentation shows that about two-thirds of Dylan’s melodies from that period were lifted directly from the Anglo- and African-American traditional repertory.” [pg 199]

He then goes on to extract part of a transcript of an interview with Bob Dylan from 2004 where Dylan discusses his song writing process:

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate... I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever... At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song. ...That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down.” [pg 199]

Hyde goes on to note that melody from ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ actually comes from a 19th century hymn ‘Deliverance Will Come’ written in the 1830s by John B. Matthias or in 1870 by W. McDonald or is simply indigenous to South West Virginia, origin unknown. Dylan first used the melody from ‘Deliverance Will Come’ in his song ‘Paths of Victory’ with variants of the tune also included in ‘When the Ship Comes In’ and ‘One Too Many Mornings’.

Hyde then goes on to question whether a young song write could arise in the same manner today as Dylan did in the 1960s. It seems unlikely with copyright law at present insisting that all sampling be licensed in advance. Hyde suggests that the creative ecology has changed significantly over recent decades and makes further reference to Dylan: “Remember his remark about the Merle Travis song ‘Sixteen Tons’: ‘You could write twenty or more songs off that one melody by slightly altering it.’ Hyde comments: ‘That may well have been the case in 1962 when Dylan’s first album appeared; today you’d better radically alter the melody, leaving no three-note passage untouched, or else make sure you have in hand twenty or more licenses from the Merle Travis estate.’ [pg 206].

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