Song of the Day #756: ‘Nettie Moore’ – Bob Dylan

The New York Times stirred up a bit of controversy when they reported that a number of lyrics on Modern Times had apparently been lifted by Bob Dylan from Civil War era poet Henry Timrod. This followed the borrowing of several lines on Love and Theft from an obscure novel by Japanese writer Junichi Saga.

Serious fans of Bob Dylan, and of folk and blues music in general, consider this much ado about nothing. This sort of music is passed down through generations like an oral tradition, with each new artist building on what he borrows wholesale from those who’ve inspired him. Dylan has done that from day one, twisting together new songs from the melodies and text of time-worn classics.

He pulls images, ideas and, yes, phrases from works of poetry and literature that he absorbs through osmosis. Anybody who has listened to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio knows that his mind is like a cultural Encyclopedia Brittanica run through a blender. And he’s not secretive about these tendencies… consider the title of the album I’m featuring this weekend: Modern Times is best known as a film by another famously mischievous tramp, Charlie Chaplin. And Love and Theft is perhaps his most meaningful album title — both of those ingredients are absolutely essential to his craft.

Modern Times was released shortly after Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, and many assumed that one track, ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break,’ was a comment on that disaster. “Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make,” Dylan croaks, and that was certainly true in Louisiana.

But one reviewer’s comments stuck with me… he said that the Katrina connections were far too limiting because Dylan belongs to a collective for whom levees have been breaking for hundreds of years. That song, in fact, is based on a Memphis Minnie tune about a 1929 Mississippi flood (Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is an interpretation of the same song).

Bob Dylan certainly wrote his share of specific story songs, chronicling wrongdoings in ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ ‘Oxford Town,’ ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and the like. But, as a wise man once said, he was so much older then… he’s younger than that now.

Here’s Dylan at a very young 65 on Modern Times‘ exceptional ‘Spirit On the Water’:

You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time

I don’t know that anybody could hear this album, or the two before it, and call Dylan over the hill or past his prime. It’s more appropriate to say that against all odds he’s at the very top of his game.

For my money, Exhibit A of Dylan’s 21st century genius is ‘Nettie Moore,’ the stately eighth track on Modern Times. I count this among his finest compositions and performances ever, and a big part of that is the fact that he couldn’t have reasonably written or performed it at a much younger age. This is the cry of a man who has lived a long and eventful life, full of sorrows and regrets but also triumphs.

[Note: I happened upon this excellent blog entry on ‘Nettie Moore’ while preparing today’s post… check it out.]

Lost John sitting on a railroad track
Something’s out of wack
Blues this morning falling down like hail
Gonna leave a greasy trail

Gonna travel the world is what I’m gonna do
Then come back and see you
All I ever do is struggle and strive
If I don’t do anybody any harm, I might make it back home alive

I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide
I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

The world of research has gone berserk
Too much paperwork
Albert’s in the graveyard, Frankie’s raising hell
I’m beginning to believe what the scriptures tell

I’m going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog
Get away from these demagogues
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It’s either one or the other or neither of the two

She says, “look out daddy, don’t want you to tear your pants.
You can get wrecked in this dance.”
They say whiskey will kill ya, but I don’t think it will
I’m riding with you to the top of the hill

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

Don’t know why my baby never looked so good before
I don’t have to wonder no more
She been cooking all day and it’s gonna take me all night
I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite

The Judge is coming in, everybody rise
Lift up your eyes
You can do what you please, you don’t need my advice
Before you call me any dirty names you better think twice

Getting light outside, the temperature dropped
I think the rain has stopped
I’m going to make you come to grips with fate
When I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your business straight

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

The bright spark of the steady lights
Has dimmed my sights
When you’re around all my grief gives ‘way
A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day

Everything I’ve ever known to be right has proven wrong
I’ll be drifting along
The woman I’m lovin’, she rules my heart
No knife could ever cut our love apart

Today I’ll stand in faith and raise
The voice of praise
The sun is strong, I’m standing in the light
I wish to God that it were night

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

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21 thoughts on “Song of the Day #756: ‘Nettie Moore’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    A wonderful song. I believe great songwriters can write great songs to their dying day. Dylan is certainly Exhibit A, but other notable examples include Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, David Byrne, Mark Knopler, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

    Still of all the ones mentioned above, it is hard to argue that anyone has had a better renaissance and winning streak than Dylan. And since he pre-dates every one of the others, that’s really saying something.

  2. Amy says:

    This is a beautiful song. I don’t know if I agree with you that Dylan couldn’t have written it or performed it as a younger man, however. How often do young writers very successfully channel the authentic voice of those with much more life experience and wisdom than they themselves have? Isn’t the hallmark of a good writer being able to do just that? Still, the fact that he continues to write such wonderful songs, that the well never seems to run dry, THAT is what amazes me.

    As for borrowing/stealing lines from poetry or old songs or novels, the key, as always, is giving those original authors credit. Had Dylan listed Timrod in his liner notes, it would be a non-issue, certainly nothing the Times would write a story about. However, not to do so is plagiarism – period. Nobody – no songwriter, no novelist, no student writer – has the right to take the words another has written and pass those words off as his own. The fact that Dylan did so surprises me; the fact that he was called on it makes me happy.

    In this digital age, plagiarism is becoming easier and easier. How many obscure bands are out there uploading their music (and lyrics) to YouTube, hoping for a break. How easy would it be for an already established artist to come across one of those songs and use some part of it? Why is that any different a violation than taking words that were written hundreds of years ago. Without offering credit to the original author, the “crime” is the same.

  3. Clay says:

    I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Sure, some detailed liner notes would make the whole thing a non-point, but Dylan has rarely provided detailed liner notes… in fact, he often goes out of his way to not do so.

    And had he cribbed these lines from Shakespeare and not a relatively obscure Civil War-era poet, that would be fine because it would be so obvious. You see uncredited allusions to other people’s work constantly in song lyrics.

    I don’t think he’s passing the words off as his own any more than he’s passing off the phrase “remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine” in ‘Girl From the North Country’ as his own. The only difference, again, is that that phrase is better known.

  4. Dana says:

    Sorry, I’m with Amy on this one. If you are lifting lines from someone else, then show that person as a co-writer, or at least put “with lyrics provided by x.” Same goes, of course, for borrowing music. Billy Joel properly credited Beethoven on “This Night.” Under your argument, he need not have done so because the tune was “so obvious” and the dude is long dead anyway? Really?

    If we are just talking about a common phrase that has morphed into our vernacular and, therefore, the public domain, then I might see your point. Also, I don’t think Melissa Etheridge needed to credit Shakespeare for the “allusion” to Romeo and Juliet in “Come to My Window.” But when someone is lifting more than just a line or phrase–and is taking multiple lines or passages, I think one is ethically obligated to give credit where credit is due.

  5. Amy says:

    Who says “that would be fine”? It wouldn’t be fine in my book. No, he still needs to give Shakespeare credit. But, yes, it’s even more important -ethically as well as practically – to credit the relatively obscure Civil War era poet.

    One needn’t write excessive liner notes to have a simple citation at the end of the song’s credits that gives credit where it’s due. You’d have a problem if Dylan didn’t give credit to the guitarist or drummer playing on a particular track; why shouldn’t he have just as much an obligation to any writer who has helped contribute to the final product?

  6. diana says:

    Great post.
    Love that song.
    Dylan uses water in so much of his imagery-
    Go back more than a couple of hundred years(re: Levee’s Gonna Break)- in the beginning (Genesis) was water-god divided the waters- (don’t have bible in front of me can’t quote)
    And Bob has such a strong biblical foundation in so much of his work.
    Water can be/is a metaphor for spirit.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post.
    Always a pleasure.

  7. Clay says:

    Interesting that Diana mentions the Bible in the midst of the plagiarism discussion. Certainly artists of all sorts have been quoting and alluding to the Bible for centuries without attribution.

    Dana, yes, Billy Joel credited Beethoven on ‘This Night’ but Elvis Costello didn’t give credit for the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or the German national anthem, both of which he cribs on songs on All This Useless Beauty. Not because he was trying to get away with anything, I’m sure, but because that’s what artists with a deep well of musical (or literary) knowledge do… they dip into that well and create new art from a cornucopia of influences.

    If the great folk artists of our time had to exhaustively detail every reference on their records that was born of somebody else’s work, they’d have to release 30-page volumes with every album. That’s how the genre works.

    Now I do see a difference between all of that and Dylan quoting specific lines from Timrod. That’s a specific and repeated enough case that it deserves a mention in the liner notes. I suspect Dylan left it out at least in part because he’s a son-of-a-bitch and a troublemaker.

    Apart from the moral outrage, though, this is a victimless crime. Timrod got nothing but a higher profile out of the controversy – his Amazon sales ranking jumped up overnight. Dylan certainly didn’t sell any more records based on those few phrases, and he didn’t use them to present himself as something different or better than what he is. This isn’t a kid plagiarizing a term paper because he didn’t want to do the work.

  8. Dana says:

    I think Elvis should have credited Beethoven, as he very much borrowed/stole from “Moonlight Sonata.” As for “Little Atoms,” I think similarity to the German National Album is coincidental, not intentional.

    And give me a break with the exhaustiveness of giving credit. Seriously? If you are consciously aware that you are “borrowing” from another source, you credit that source. Period. Certainly works like the Bible are in the public domain and there is no need to credit a reference to it. Sting need not credit the Bible on “Rock Steady” merely because he is playing with the Noah’s Ark fable. On the other hand, if someone is going to quote entire lines and passages from the Bible, I do think that should be credited.

    It’s not really about “getting away with anything” or “innocent” use, it’s about doing the right thing, even if the “victim” is dead or if the “victim” would not mind (or even be grateful) for the use of his or her work. I’m sure The Chiffons might have been honored by a former Beatle “borrowing” their tune “He’s So Fine” for the hit “Oh My Lord,” but, not only did Harrison not cop to the theft, he had to be sued and lose before turning over royalties. I’m sure Timrod’s estate might benefit from hiring the Chiffon’s lawyers!

  9. Clay says:

    Timrod’s work is in the public domain as well, so there are certainly no legal ramifications here. It’s more a question of whether it’s insensitive of him to not acknowledge the source.

    So you think the liner notes of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan should have contained a note saying “A line from ‘Girl From the North Country’ originally appeared in an English folk ballad titled ‘Scarborough Fair,’ which itself was adapted and rearranged over many years by dozens of performers.’

  10. Amy says:

    I think Dana made it clear that neither of us is suggesting that an artist must cite every allusion he makes. However, I will say it again just to be clear.

    Allusions only really work when the source material is quite familiar – whether it be the Bible, a Shakespeare play, a Greek myth, or some other famous piece of literature (or, perhaps, music). Therefore, the necessity of making clear the source of the allusion becomes less important as the artist is counting on the reader understanding the reference.

    Quoting lines from a piece of literature, on the other hand, always warrants a specific citation. I would say the same is true if a scene from a film is replicated shot by shot or a piece of music is reproduced within another original composition.

    To develop the film and music analogies, if a director chooses to appear in a cameo in his own film, he needn’t cite Alfred Hitchcock, though he is most famous for doing so. However, when he decides to recreate Psycho frame for frame (why, oh why?), then making it clear that the new film is not original is imperative.

    Similarly, if a musician chooses to incorporate a drum beat that was inspired by some earlier piece of music, no citation is needed. If that same musician lifts an entire chorus, such as Eminem does when he uses Dido’s haunting refrain in his own “Stan,” he MUST give her credit.

    K, that’s all 🙂

  11. Dana says:

    I’m on the fence about the “North Country” reference. I think it would be both cool and informative for Dylan to credit the line, but my sense is that the line and the poem from which it came was so familiar and traditional across the pond, that it would be a bit like a British artist having to credit “Row Row Row Your Boat” if the line “gently down the stream” were to be used.

    This may just be my ignorance, but my impression was that Timrod’s poem is far less known, familiar or traditional and the use was more extensive than simply borrowing one line (as Dylan did with “Scarborough Fair”}. Therefore, to follow up on Amy’s point, the reference cannot be fairly called an allusion since most people wouldn’t know the source material to get the homage. So, my opinion is that Dylan should have credited Timrod–not just in the liner notes, but in the authorship of the work, as in “Lyrics by Bob Dylan and Henry Timrod.” Surely, that wouldn’t make the CD booklet become 30 pages long, would it?

  12. Clay says:

    Well, Eminem used her actual recording, so that’s a whole other matter.

    In your film example, there are certainly steps in between your extremes. In Boogie Nights, for example, Paul Thomas Anderson uses a shot of a woman entering a pool that he admits to lifting from a film called I Am Cuba.

    There is no mention of that in the Boogie Nights credits, of course, just as Scorsese doesn’t list the dozens of shots he’s lifted from the French auteurs he worshiped as an aspiring filmmaker.

    Snippets of lyrics and musical phrases have been kicked around, borrowed and re-borrowed, for hundreds of years in the folk music world. It’s part of the tradition. There probably isn’t a 60s folk song on record that doesn’t contain pieces of songs recorded decades earlier, with no formal attribution given or expected.

    I agree that the Timrod case is different in the details. He’s not the sort of artist you expect to be repurposed in this way. My contention is that Dylan isn’t making that distinction… he’s just applying the same “love and theft” to a Civil War poet that he (and countless musicians like him for centuries) have applied to folk and blues songs.

  13. Clay says:

    And yes, I completely agree that the right thing to do would be to mention Timrod in the liner notes (because it is such a specific, unexpected and obscure source).

  14. Dana says:

    I think your movie examples confuse original work product and actual source material with style and ideas. Yes, if a director is inspired by a style used by another director, that style may be borrowed. Scorcese made a career out of liberally borrowing from Hitchcock’s style. However, if Scorcese were to lift so much as a frame of a Hitchcock movie, you can be sure the studio lawyers would demand that permission be sought and credit given.

    The lines are equally clear in music, particularly with lyrics, perhaps less so with melodies. The example we discussed earlier about “Moonlight Sonata” sits in that gray area. I mean, when you break it down, all Beethoven was doing there was rolling a C minor chord–not all that revolutionary, or even that original (or difficult)–but still made distinctive in that piece. It might be the musical equivalent to the lyric “She Loves You.” Still, I come down on the side of saying Costello should have given credit to the source for “All This Useless Beauty,”

    And John Cafferty can sing “On the Dark Side” until he is blue in the face without ever having to give credit to the style he completely and deliberately ripped off from the Boss. But if Cafferty lifted lyrics directly from a Springsteen song, and started singing
    “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway american dream, At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…” I suspect he might be hearing from the Boss’ attorneys, as well he should.

    I get the whole vibe and tradition of folk music as having stories passed down. That is wonderful, and I don’t think some guy singing in the desert in Arizona in 1870 to his horse needed to tell the horse that part of the song he was singing came from some other folk singer he heard up the trail. But there is no reason why attribution cannot be given by the modern day folk artist who is putting out songs for sale and profiting, at least in part, by the source material he or she “borrowed,”

  15. Clay says:

    Speaking of Costello, I came across this page of allusions in his songs to other music and lyrics, some intentional and some not: http://www.elviscostello.info/faq/musical_allusions.php

    One example… the opening lines of ‘Possession’ are “If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything that you need” which are of course the opening lines of The Beatles’ ‘From Me To You.’

  16. Frank M says:

    I’m a Dylan lover, but what he did on Modern Times was clearly plagiarism. He made some beustiful songs here, but he lifted WAY too much material without citing it -clearly a ripoff. He should have given credit where it was due.

    He’s still the greatest pop songwriter we have, but he went too far on this album.

  17. Alias says:

    Dana, so, let me make it clear, in your opinion
    this:

    If you’re traveling in the north country fair
    Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
    Remember me to one who lives there
    She once was the true love of mine.

    is NOT lifted from this:

    Are you goin’ to Scarborough Fair?
    Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
    Remember me to one who lives there,
    she once was a true love of mine.

    fine. there is a difference in the second line. However, the meaning of the song, the mood, everything is the same. Case to the point – when he was young it was alright to steal (“blowing in the wind” and “don’t think twice it’s alright” are also lifted tunes), but now, when he started making really interesting and original constructions with his “thefts” it is suddenly unethical. How so?

  18. Dana says:

    Clay

    I think, arguably, EC should have given some acknowledgment on “Possession” to the Beatles lyrics, although, to be fair, those lyrics and the sentiment expressed aren’t really all that original anyway, are they? It’s not like he stole “let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields…”

    The somewhat more interesting question is whether, assuming you feel EC need not have credited the Beatles on that one, you would feel differently if EC had taken a sample of Lennon’s voice for those lines. I think there you would much more readily say that EC was “stealing” if he did not cite the source. This whole plagiarism thing can be quite the slippery slope…

    Alias:

    My point about “Scarborough Fair” and “North Country” is simply that this poem is so old and traditional and known in Britain, that lines from it could be used in the same way as an American artist might use “row your boat” or “Mary had a little lamb.” Still, I’m of the belief that, when you are in the gray area and you KNOW exactly the source from which you are stealing and you are intentionally doing so, you should give credit where credit is due.

    As for your second point, it is equally inappropriate for Dylan to not have acknowledged the tunes he lifted for “Blowing in the Wind” or “Don’t Think Twice.” And the issue isn’t whether he is rich or poor. My earlier point was simply that the folk tradition that Dylan clings to in his defiance of giving credit to prior work is based on a a rather false premise, in that folk singers from decades or centuries ago were not necessarily making music for commercial purposes. While Dylan may not have been rich when he recorded his first album, he was undoubtedly interested in making money from “his” songs. That being the case, he should have, at the very least, seen the distiction between him and folk singers from the past.

  19. Clay says:

    If Costello used a sample of Lennon singing it wouldn’t be a plagiarism issue, it would be a copyright issue. Just as using an actual clip from a Hitchcock film is different from recreating a shot of his.

    Liner note etiquette aside, I think the principal issue here is whether the material is used to create something new. Costello was certainly winking at the Beatles tune in his, but taking it in a whole new direction. Dylan has done the same with countless phrases from old standards (including in this very song… “I miss you Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er” is a line from a 19th century poem).

  20. Dana says:

    Copyright is really just the legal codification of plagiarism. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Beatles had failed to obtain copyright protection for “Strawberry Fields,” would you then say there would be nothing wrong with taking the sample?

  21. Clay says:

    Nothing wrong legally, yes. He should certainly acknowledge the usage, however, even if he didn’t have to pay a dime for it.

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