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Could Bob Dylan be accused of plagiarism in borrowing for his Nobel lecture?

Over 20 other sentences with traces and phrases from the Moby Dick SparkNotes were found in the Nobel lecture of Bob Dylan.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2017 21:43 IST
HT Correspondent
Bob Dylan recorded his 26-minute Nobel lecture in Los Angeles and provided it to the Swedish Academy, which called it
Bob Dylan recorded his 26-minute Nobel lecture in Los Angeles and provided it to the Swedish Academy, which called it "extraordinary" and "eloquent" in a June 5, 2017 news release. (AP File Photo)

Did Bob Dylan use, without attribution, several passages from a website that provides study guides for his Nobel Prize Lecture?

That’s the question blowing in the wind after Slate magazine reported that the unlikely Nobel laureate referenced or “cobbled together” several passages in his lecture from the entry on Moby Dick on the website SparkNotes.

The Slate report showed specific similarities in the language used by Dylan and SparkNotes, a website started by a group of Harvard students that has study guides on several subjects. This includes specific phrases, such as “lust for vengeance”, that feature in SparkNotes but not Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in October and would have forfeited the prize money of 8 million krona ($900,000) if he didn’t deliver the lecture by June 10. Days before the deadline, he delivered the 4,000-word speech, recited against a tinkling piano.

In the speech, Dylan references the music of Buddy Holly and three books that influenced him – Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Bob Dylan performs during day 2 of The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent on June 30th 2012. (Reuters)

After writer Ben Greenman observed in a blog post that Dylan had apparently made up a quote from Moby Dick, the Slate’s Andrea Pitzer discovered it had been cobbled together from several phrases in the entry on the novel on SparkNotes. Slate then found that almost 20 of the 78 sentences Dylan devoted to Mody Dick closely resembled lines from SparkNotes.

Some examples:

Dylan – “Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and then.”

SparkNotes – “…musing on his wife and child back in Nantucket.”

Dylan – “There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom.”

SparkNotes – “One of the ships...carries Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom.”

Dylan – “Captain Boomer - he lost an arm to Moby. But...he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”

SparkNotes – “Captain Boomer has lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick... Boomer, happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”

Dylan – “Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”

SparkNotes – “…a whaling ship whose skipper, Captain Boomer, has lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick …. Boomer, happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”

The reclusive musician, who did not acknowledge the honour for weeks, and representatives of the Nobel Prize Committee have not yet commented on the matter.

This is not the first time Dylan, 76, has been accused of plagiarism. In the past, critics have said he passed off traditional folk songs and covers of blues songs by performers such as Lead Belly as his own compositions.

Dylan has also been accused of copying some lines for the song Modern Times from 19th century poet Henry Timrod and some of the lyrics on his 2001 album Love and Theft from Junichi Saga’s book Confessions Of A Yakuza.

In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan defended his actions, saying: “It’s an old thing — it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”

He added, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me.”