Amidst the acres of verbiage inspired by Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, I only found one really original piece — Fintan O’Toole’s essay in the Irish Times — in which he makes the point that Dylan’s most distinctive achievement was to privatise folksong had hitherto been in the Commons. Folk song, writes O’Toole,
occupied an ambivalent terrain between originality (and therefore private ownership) and collective tradition (and thus common possession). Dylan ruthlessly exploited this ambiguity. He treated everybody else’s folk songs as a common storehouse he could raid at will. He didn’t just filch songs from other people’s repertoires; he stole their arrangements. (As late as 1992, he lifted Nic Jones’s arrangement of Canadee-I-O, wholesale and without acknowledgment.) He did this on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Martin Carthy, who has also just turned 70, taught him Scarborough Fair, which Dylan then recycled as Girl from the North Country.
But he treated his own songs as private property: what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own. The assertion of his individualism involved in “going electric” was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist and therefore as the sole owner of his own songs.
We can say now that Dylan’s ruthlessness was that of any genius and that his exploitation of these ambiguities was justified by what he produced from them. But it’s hard to blame people for not seeing it quite that way at the time. Dylan was doing something significant in the history not just of modern culture but of modern capitalism. He was fencing in what had been common land, establishing property rights over a collective heritage. He wasn’t alone in this and it was part of a much bigger process. But those who yelped in pain were not entirely contemptible.
Good piece. Worth reading in full.