Folked Up: Stephen Thomas on Joni Mitchell’s ‘jibe’ against Bob Dylan

There are few sadder sights in the world than that of the once mighty, now fallen. A few days ago news came across that Joni Mitchell had, in a recent interview with the LA Times, belittled Bob Dylan as ‘a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I’.

These words have seemingly shocked much of the music media – Mitchell rarely gives interviews, and without these insights into her personality we are left making our assumptions based on the Mitchell of forty years ago, the Mitchell of Blue or Caught and Spark. In reality, she is in fact very much not the woman that she was in the early Seventies – plagued by insecurities and health issues, the Mitchell of 2010 is an uncertain creature, and someone who it is perhaps hard to criticise at this point in time. This is one of the two conclusions I have made in the past three days, as I have considered this blog, and my thoughts on Mitchell’s comments regarding Dylan. The second conclusion I came to was this: that I agree with everything Mitchell has said.

Yes, everything about Bob Dylan is a deception. But, really, are we surprised by this? We shouldn’t be. When, in 2007, Dylan’s life was made into a film biopic the only way to adequately portray the man on-screen was to hire six different actors to play the dramatically different facets of his life. He has, in his time, been a troubadour, a rock star, a poet and a college drop-out. Dylan is notorious for his early-year interviews, during which he would often give conflicting back stories about his past, and where he came from. Since his origins as an artist and a musician Dylan has never been entirely honest with us – like the most successful acts in the world (Madonna, Bono), Dylan is a man of many personae. It just so happens that he is also significantly better than the other masters of disguise.

And yes, of course Dylan’s name is fake. We all know this, and it has never been less than public knowledge. In the interview in question, Mitchell explained that she goes by the first name ‘Joni’ because her birth name of Roberta Joan was little more than a feminine twist given by parents who had hoped for a Robert John. Is this really different from the plight of Robert Zimmerman? Dylan has always said he never felt an affinity to that name. In his own words, “Some people – you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents.” Mitchell knows this better than most, and as such, perhaps night and day aren’t all that different after all.

And so, finally, Dylan’s voice. Is it his own? Is it someone else’s? Is Bob Dylan a plagiarist? Of course he is. Because, in so many ways, that’s what folk is about. It isn’t as if Dylan is stealing the words directly from other’s mouths – but the ideas, and the stories. Folk music is, in the end, about capturing the culture of the people, and maintaining the world of the people who came before you. To this end, folk music will always live and breathe on the remnants of other people’s ideas, and as such, plagiarism is as vital to Dylan’s career as his guitar, his voice and his many, many personae. When Joni Mitchell attempted to separate herself from Bob Dylan, all she managed to do was closer tie him to everyone in her profession.

35 comments for “Folked Up: Stephen Thomas on Joni Mitchell’s ‘jibe’ against Bob Dylan

  1. 27 April 2010 at 3:55 pm Bob Dylan and Emily Dickinson

    its the way folk works, folks…

  2. Bug
    27 April 2010 at 7:21 pm

    brilliantly put. great blog.

  3. Starlite21
    28 April 2010 at 12:16 am

    Well Bob did take credit for writing a song and music, on his Modern Times CD,for a song, “Trouble No More” that was previously recorded, many many years before, by Muddy Waters and the Allman Brothers. I was really shocked and disappointed to read those liner notes after hearing the song, as I have always been a Dylan fan, (as well as a MW and ABB fan) He really overstepped the artistic boundaries on that one and I lost a huge amount of respect I had for him as an artist. It’s one thing to be inspired by other artists and reflect that in one’s work, but to actually take an entire piece of music, change a few words and call it your own is not acceptable.
    I have to say, Joni is a complete original and she can say that with all honesty and integrity, whether people like her music or not. I happen to love her music, she is a musical genius IMO.

    • jean delarue
      28 April 2010 at 8:42 am

      Bob Dylan has publishing company attorneys who make those decisions if they are “legal”

      • starlite21
        28 April 2010 at 7:38 pm

        Legal or not…from a true artist’s point of view….Bob did a an artistic NO NO. I love Bob Dylan’s music, by the way. He just needs to give credit where it is due.

        • Bob
          28 April 2010 at 10:17 pm

          Muddy didn’t write that song, actually.

          • Kelly
            6 June 2010 at 4:11 am

            The one credit that’s always bothered me is the sole Bob Dylan attribution for “I Shall Be Released.” On the original “Music From Big Pink” the first appearance of the song at the end of The Band’s first album is sung by Rick Danko and credited to “Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel.” On John Wesley Harding it’s credited to Bob alone. It always came across as a Richard Manuel type of song, and given the history of grabbing credits on that album I’ve always thought Bob might have been taking advantage.

    • peter
      28 April 2010 at 9:42 am

      ‘Trouble No More’ is very old. Someday Baby Blues by Sleepy John Estes is the oldest one I know, from the late twenties, and he’s known for writing it, but there is an earlier version, I think.

      The song is old enough to be Public Domain, I think, but then, he didn’t just change a few words: Dylan wrote a completely new set of lyrics and just used the chorus lines… adding a new angle to the song. The music is traditional. This is legally known as a new composition and would not be rightfully judged as plagiarism.

      • starlite21
        28 April 2010 at 7:32 pm

        When I first heard the piece after purchasing the CD, I said to myself…how cool… he is doing Trouble No More! Then I read the credits and he gave NO credit to the original writer or even acknowledged it was a traditional. Regardless of what you think or what the law thinks….He took an entire musical piece and called his own composition…. and not just a few notes. He could have just credited the original at least as “adapted from a traditional”. “New arrangement by”, ” “adapted lyrics by Bob Dylan. Public domain means you can use something without permission or paying for the rights. It does not mean you can take another artist’s work and call it your own. Do you think that people should be allowed to take Shakespeare’s work and call it their own, while not giving any credit to the Bard? It is in the public domain.

        • Dick
          28 April 2010 at 10:23 pm

          This is a boring assessment of public domain law. Don’t you think that possibly there’s a bit of conceptual art in Dylan’s claiming the song as his own? Or do you think he’s a fool enough to imagine a guy like you, for instance, has never heard Muddy Waters before, and therefore he can easily and cheaply get away with taking the credit? In any case, it’s all about perception, and about your perception, as a person willing to buy a CD in the year 2006.

    • 28 April 2010 at 11:20 am

      Just what exactly are you talking about? There is no song on Modern Times with the title”Trouble No More”,nothing even close to that.Also Mitchell’s best work,is about on par with dylan’s worst efforts.If joni Mitchell is a “genius”,than Chuck Norris is a brilliant actor.

      • starlite21
        28 April 2010 at 7:44 pm

        You might try to live up to your name. I said IMO. You are entitled to yours, even if you compare her to Chuck Norris as an artist. It only shows how unsophisticated you are.
        The song on the CD is called Someday Baby.

  4. 28 April 2010 at 8:37 am

    My take on this: Joni put out a ‘comeback’ record about a year or so ago, but it bombed. Bob’s output since Time Out Of Mind (1997) has been spectacular. Somehow he was able to re-invent himself & she wasn’t. Big time sour grapes & a cheap shot.

  5. Jerome Langguth
    28 April 2010 at 9:54 am

    I agree about Dylan and the folk process, and the comments by Mitchell did seem unnecessarily mean-spirited. However, I think that Joni Mitchell hasn’t been a “folk” artist since sometime in the early 70s. She is more connected to jazz now, and has long been collaborating with jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, etc. (and Charles Mingus on the underrated Mingus album). Put in this context, Mitchell and Dylan are indeed like night and day. Also, Mitchell’s comments are no better or worse than Dylan’s recent dismissal of the later Johnny Cash albums as “notorious low grade stuff.” I didn’t much like Mitchell’s remarks, but was even more taken aback by Dylan’s dismissal of Cash’s moving series of albums with Rick Rubin. Especially considering Cash’s open-mindedness and generosity of spirit In the end, I love both Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, and nothing said in the context of an interview will change that.

    • Ty B.
      28 April 2010 at 5:22 pm

      Yes, but Dylan’s comments regarding Cash weren’t smearing his name and reputation in the press. He was just expressing an opinion over his later work. When one takes into consideration the fact that he and Cash were close friends, and that he has admitted to adoring much of Cash’s earlier work, I’m not sure why we should be critical of those comments. Surely he’s entitled to dislike something (although “notorious” was probably poor word choice). Whatever the case, it’s not nearly on the same level as calling someone predominantly known for his writing a plagiarist.

  6. 28 April 2010 at 12:18 pm

    IMHO we have been blessed as a generation to have had both Joni and Bob as the king/queen of our troubadours/songwriters. Joni’s latest effort takes time to appreciate, but her Travelogue is a reworking of a catalogue that Bob would probably never attempt. Joni’s also been doing painting, having her songs performed as ballet etc. Both are restless artists that have enriched our journey.She has always spoken straightforwadly in interviews unlike our musical expeditionary. Thank God for Bob, Joni,Paul Simon, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Ray davies, Paul McCartney etc. The musical gods smiled on us indeed.

    • starlite21
      28 April 2010 at 7:57 pm

      Here, Here! I second that!

  7. coacoa1
    28 April 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Joni seems to be a little attention starved these days in order to blast someone who is obviously able to grow from the folk music era. Dylan has always made it a point to bring obsure music and poetry to the attention of the masses and if he did not do this it would just die in muddy waters. Dylan forever. I love Dylan and I also love Joni Mitchell too and muddy waters. But Dylans name keeps music alive for many . Its like saying Bach is better than Mozart. Dylans music is so vast that it cant be contained as just folk although folk is the root. I love all of joni Mitchell but I feel it takes something away when she belittles my other heros.

  8. Martin M
    28 April 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Of course Dylan’s not “authentic” : no one in rock is. The whole thing, to quote the classic phrase, is about white musicians trying to copy black music, and getting it wrong.

    Actually, that description fits “Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Hejira,” too. I love Mitchell’s work – but I don’t see how a white Canadian singing a jazz-inflected song to a Burundi drum sample in a Californian studio is any more “authentic” than Dylan re-imagining himself as Little Richard, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Keats, or an amalagam of the lot – nor why anyone should worry about it. But let’s be charitable: Joni isn’t well, and no doubt she’ll say more once she’s in better health.

  9. Joe
    28 April 2010 at 1:36 pm

    ….and how many artist have stole Bob’s voice, words, music…etc…
    We’re still counting cause there still coming! I feel for Joni, but I think she might be jealous that Dylan will forever be relevant.I’m not sure but it could also be an old lovers brawl? Anyway she is getting a lot of attention.

  10. Marc Fisher
    28 April 2010 at 2:08 pm

    The Rollin’and Tumblin has a similar chorus, but not the same verses as Muddy Waters. That in no way is plagiarism. He loves reusing words, just like great authors like Hunter Thompson. Blonde on Blonde is one of the most original works ever, as well as Like A Rolling Stone. This song goes back so far and has been recorded by Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, Cream, RL Burnside,Elmore James, Jeff Beck, and Johnny Winter to name a few. All with different lyrics and sound to Dylan’s. People who say he is plagiarizing are stupid for speaking about things they have little knowledge about. Jealousy is no excuse; it is an ugly feeling.

  11. John
    28 April 2010 at 5:34 pm

    My only thought upon hearing her comments was “inauthentic what?” and “fake what?” And, a deception? So, who then put out those 35 or so albums? And who put on those 1500 or so concerts? Someone else?

  12. RGS
    28 April 2010 at 6:24 pm

    It would be interesting to read more about Joni’s evaluation of Bob’s work. She has drawn from what went before in her own music. The Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm CD includes A Bird That Whistles, her interesting arrangement of the traditional song, Corinna Corinna. She acknowledges the debt, but she copyrights the work for her company.

    • Stephen W Thomas
      Stephen Thomas
      28 April 2010 at 11:04 pm

      Much agreed, RGS – I first heard of this interview on 6Music news, and then read the short article in The Independent. When I got to reading the full interview on the LA Times website, as linked in the blog, I was frankly frustrated by how the reporter did not follow up on Joni’s comments – it was clearly a point of interest that should have been looked into in more depth.

      But yes, Joni’s own work echoes much of the points I made in the blog – that folk relies on fresh interpretations of other people’s ideas. The wonderful contemporary folk band Erland and the Carnival, for instance, feature several versions of traditional English and Irish folk songs on their record.

  13. starlite21
    28 April 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Bob and Joni most likely talked about this many times while on the road together. She is not the first to call him these things.

  14. don
    28 April 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Call it what you like, i call it messin’ with the kid. Dylan Rules Period!!!

    • Mrs G
      28 April 2010 at 9:22 pm

      No one comes close to Dylan.

  15. don
    28 April 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Anyway its Paul Simon she should call a plagiarist, he owns the copyright to one of the oldest folk songs around. At least Dylan borrowed from it and wrote Girl From The North Country. Anybody that wants to sing a nearly five hundred year old song called Scarborough Fair has to deal with Paul Simon’s lawyers.

  16. Kieran Fogarty
    28 April 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Last time I saw Bob (Point,Dublin 2009) most of the audience was two generations younger than I was. This is a sure sign that, many years from now & many generations to come, will know Bob Dylan, just like we know of the great poets, composers & great artists of the past. Bob Dylan is a very real poet/musician/song&danceman/genius & most importantly, honest/no crap/quiet/no big scene guy, who gets on a plane and brings his music/poetry to every corner of this miserable planet. Thanks, Bob.
    Best of luck Joni. We all need it.

  17. Jack K
    28 April 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Is taking the words and melodies of others, putting your name on it, taking the credit and collecting the royalties all part of the folk tradition? If so, I’d say he mastered it.

    • j-man
      29 April 2010 at 6:54 pm

      Lol. You are the kinda person Viacom loves! They just get their two fingers up your nose and lead you around like a bull. You read it, so it must be true.

      Well, read this:
      Anyone, including the gossipy woman that wrote this article, who detracts from Dylan’s work WILL be proven a fool by history. It’s quite simple: There will be very little else to remember about this period in music because there has been no other work with the breadth and depth of Dylan’s. Just as you know the names of no playwrights save one, the people of 2500 will know the names of no modern singer/songwriter better than Dylan. His art created a new arena. That being the case, none of what he does has anything to do with what Joni Mitchell does, other than that she’s heavily influenced by him in the same way that most musician’s are; ignorantly.

  18. jana
    29 April 2010 at 12:28 am

    Nothing compares 2 Bob (minus zero/no limit)

  19. 29 April 2010 at 6:57 pm

    With all of these knowledgeable posters, I’m surprised no one has corrected the author of the blog – It’s “Court and Spark”. Not “caught” (unless you’re from Boston writing phonetically, I guess).

    • Stephen W Thomas
      Stephen Thomas
      29 April 2010 at 7:03 pm

      You know what’s really annoying? I knew that. Damn. Well pointed out, Corey.

  20. HANS in FRANCE
    30 April 2010 at 10:29 am

    Bobby will be coming to NICE on the 22nd of June, CAN’T WAIT!!!

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