Over his decades-long career as rock’s foremost poet, Bob Dylan has sometimes played fast and loose with quotes and facts. 1965’s “Desolation Row,” for instance, presents a literary hodgepodge of everyone from Albert Einstein to Romeo and Juliet shouting made-up poetry, and years ago astute fans noticed that several lines from Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft seemed to originate in Junichi Saga’s book Confessions of a Yakuza. Now, it appears that Dylan might be back to his old tricks — a new report from Slate suggests that Dylan may have plagiarized lines in his recent Nobel lecture from the SparkNotes summary of Moby-Dick.
After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, Dylan mostly played coy, and even skipped the official award ceremony in December. When he finally got around to giving his Nobel lecture earlier this month, Dylan focused on three literary works in particular: The Odyssey, All Quiet On The Western Front, and Moby-Dick. As Slate‘s Andrea Pitzer found, however, many of the quotes Dylan attributes to Moby-Dick seem to come from SparkNotes, rather than Herman Melville’s novel. For instance, Dylan’s description of the great whale as “the embodiment of evil” does not appear in the original book (which is part of the public domain and available in full online), but is used in SparkNotes’ summary.
If the plagiarism is intentional, one academic critic interviewed by Pitzer noted that it was also ironic given that “Dylan is cribbing [from] a contemporary publication that is under copyright instead of from Moby-Dick itself, which is in the public domain.” But when Dylan has pulled moves like this in the past, they weren’t supposed to make sense; they’re part of his art. Back in 2003 during the Love and Theft lyrics controversy, New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles noted that “his lyrics are like magpies’ nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown” (and the very title of that album in question is a reference to a landmark study of blackface and cultural appropriation in America). In the Nobel lecture itself, Dylan refers to drawing on “folk lingo” in his early songs, pulling from a tradition of musicians and lyricists who had gone before him.
Still, as Pitzer notes, “I would encourage him to throw some of his $923,000 prize to whoever wrote the original version of the online summary.”