"The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate. If an artist is struck by something in his or her chosen art form, there is an all-consuming desire to absorb everything about it. During the process of assimilation the artist's output will be an imitation of the beloved form. In the end, for the uniquely gifted, there will be innovation." - Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin' Time
There are many reasons why living the creative life isn't for the faint of heart. One of them is, especially if you're particularly prolific, that sooner or later you will be accused of ripping someone else off.
I just finished reading A Freewheelin' Time, the memoir by former Bob Dylan sweetheart Suze Rotolo (pictured above). I recommend it to anyone who is a Dylan enthusiast and/or is interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene in its heyday and the politics of the early 60s - it's a fascinating read. It's been on my list for awhile so I whipped through it in honor of Bob's 68th birthday last weekend (!). Yeah, he's 68, people.
One of the many worthy songs from his second album - recorded during the height of Dylan's relationship with Rotolo - is Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. This painfully stark song shines a light on the awful ambivalence one experiences when a relationship is crumbling and will probably end because the necessary foundation for its survival is too compromised.
Dylan composed the song while he was with Rotolo during the time that she had exiled herself indefinitely in Italy studying art. It was not clear when she would return to him - although she did, for awhile - and Rotolo writes that Dylan, while coaxing her to return in lovestruck letter after lovestruck letter, was publicly spreading bile among their friends about how this defection was adversely affecting him. I saw at least one book reference that Rotolo's successor, Joan Baez, later dueted with Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, apparently introducing the song in some thinly veiled uncharitable terms while Rotolo was in the audience. Living under that microscope was one of many reasons Rotolo did not feel she could continue in the relationship.
According to various sources, Dylan is alleged to have lifted some of the backbone of Don't Think Twice from Paul Clayton, a friend and fellow folkie, who recorded Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I'm Gone) in 1960. Litigation ensued, during which Clayton's song was demonstrated to be similar to a traditional song in the public domain, possibly originating with Marybird McAllister, called Who's Gonna Buy You Chickens When I'm Gone. No harm, no fowl, I guess. Although there seem to be a lot of people who feel Dylan has been, through his career, deficient in giving credit where credit is due, in Cameron Crowe's liner notes to 1985's Biograph, Dylan does acknowledge the "riff" being Clayton's (by then, he had long since died, however).
I don't pretend to know anything about how intellectual property is protected in the music industry. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove many claims that are made, however. Art being art, and if it has left the confines of one's solitary conjuring of it, is inherently susceptible to morphing into new organisms. As my friend Wade opined last week on the same topic, artists who've built on works that went before "... weren't ripping anybody off - they were just contributing to the communal mosaic, seeing connections where nobody else saw them." (And he's a lawyer!) That is the folk tradition, after all. I guess if you're Bob Dylan, others' judgments will forever be projected upon you.
Check out this electric version of Don't Think Twice with Bob and Eric Clapton! Depending on which comment you read on YouTube, in true Rashomonesque fashion, this took place either at Madison Square Garden in 1999 or Carnegie Hall in 2004.
I'll end with a great Dylan quote from an article in the November 2008 issue of Uncut, in which Bob is asked by one of his sound engineers, Chris Shaw, after hearing a completely reinvented version of It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), whether he ever plays it like the original recording. And Bob replies: "Well, y'know, a record is just a recording of what you were doing that day. You don't wanna live the same day over and over again, now. Do ya?"