Bob Dylan’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ Revealed
For half a century, fans of rock’s enigmatic poet laureate have picked apart his words—and even his garbage—searching relentlessly for hidden meaning. Now a small band of Dylan sleuths led by an Albuquerque disc jockey may finally have found the key…but, to what?
In recent years, the singer’s followers have been quietly uncovering clues to what New Mexico DJ Scott Warmuth calls Bob Dylan’s own personal “Da Vinci Code,” a hidden metatext within his acclaimed 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, full of fabrication, allusion, and widespread appropriation of material from a vast and surprising spectrum of sources.
Now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Kinney is spotlighting Warmuth’s research for a mainstream audience in his just-published book, The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob. Kinney writes that Dylan had expected to keep Dylanologists busy for a long time after his death: “He said it would take a hundred years for people to figure him out. But what he probably didn’t foresee was the scope of the Internet, and in particular Google Books.”
Kinney, a former reporter at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, said he understands why some fans are uneasy about Warmuth’s conclusions. But he’s convinced that Warmuth is on to something.
“There are a couple of different reactions to it,” Kinney told The Daily Beast. “The first level is the denial–the people who think, ‘C’mon, these are commonplace phrases,’ or ‘Maybe he’s just reading stuff and he’s got one of those weird minds that can recall this stuff.’ That’s become a harder and harder case to make as more stuff has come out.
“The second point of debate goes to whether all artists borrow and recast and appropriate.” It’s the argument about plagiarism Jonathan Lethem put forth in a famous 2007 essay: Why are we worried about this? All art comes from someplace. “Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.”
Dylan’s Chronicles, one of five finalists for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for biography or autobiography, appears to sample everything from Ovid and Virgil to Twain, Hemingway, H.G. Wells, a March 31, 1961 issue of Time magazine, and scores of other far-flung source material—even self-help books.
Since 2003, when a Minnesota schoolteacher came across lines from Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft in an obscure biography of a Japanese mobster, the legendary songwriter has faced accusations of plagiarism. His subsequent album Modern Times also borrowed liberally from the work of Henry Timrod, a Civil War-era poet from Charleston, South Carolina.
Dylan’s appropriation has been explained away by scholars and many fans as part of a rich folk and blues tradition of sampling lines from older songs.
“That’s something that poets have been doing forever,” says Harvard classics professor Richard Thomas, who has written academic papers on Dylan’s use of the work of the first-century poet Virgil. “It’s a way of alluding to or correcting or parodying what came before,” Thomas told me last week. “You hear the stolen line, but it’s replaced by its new context. That’s how folk music works, how the blues works.”
But far more compelling—and for many of Dylan’s most ardent fans, troubling—is Warmuth’s contention that many of Dylan’s phrases, anecdotes, and descriptions in Chronicles are cleverly-contrived tall tales, rich with hidden clues and subtle nods to myriad sources, both profound and prosaic.
“He tells you plenty about himself on the surface,” Warmuth told me when I got him on the phone. “But what’s going on beneath the surface is even more fascinating.”
In a scholarly essay published in The New Haven Review in 2010 (PDF), Warmuth wrote that Chronicles is “meticulously fabricated” and that “dozens upon dozens of quotations and anecdotes have been incorporated from other sources.
“Dylan has hidden many puzzles, jokes, secret messages, secondary meanings, and bizarre subtexts in his book,” Warmuth asserted in the essay. “Dylan borrows from American classics and travel guides, fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War, science fiction, crime novels, both Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, Hemingway, books on photography, songwriting, Irish music, soul music, and a book about the art of sideshow banter.”
“He dipped into both a book favored by a nineteenth-century occult society and a book about the Lewinsky scandal by Showgirls screen writer Joe Eszterhas,” Warmuth wrote.
But while the scholarship was solid, it has been slow to gain acceptance. “Some people argue that those searching for these borrowings are engaged in a sort of ‘gotcha’ game—finding these things and leaving it at that with no further analysis beyond, ‘Well, Dylan’s a thief,’” says Kinney. “But Scott [Warmuth] is trying to take it to the next step by digging into why Dylan uses the borrowed phrases that he does, and how he uses them. And that’s the most interesting work to my mind. It really could keep people occupied for a hundred years.”
Like many traditional blues and folk singers, Dylan has been known throughout his career for appropriating lines and melodies from others’ earlier work. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a rewrite of the slave-era folk song “No More Auction Block.”
When Love and Theft came out in the fall of 2001, a renewed scrutiny of Dylan’s creative techniques began.
Fans, including Warmuth, started to collect allusions and the cribbed lines they noticed in Dylan’s most dynamic new album in years. A well-worn phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby was spotted almost immediately by many (including this writer) in Love and Theft’s third track, “Summer Days.”
“You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.”
After The Wall Street Journal published a story in 2003 about Minnesota schoolteacher Chris Johnson’s discovery that numerous lines and phrasings from Love and Theft appeared to be lifted from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, Dylan detectives began digging deeper.
“That was, for me, like the ‘game on’ moment,’” Warmuth recalls with a chuckle.
The following year, Simon & Schuster released Chronicles: Volume One, describing it as “an intimate and intensely personal recollection of extraordinary times.”
While most reviewers hailed the book for its seemingly unique turns of phrase, Warmuth quickly spotted inconsistencies that piqued his curiosity.
“I had read the book in 2004 and was fascinated like everybody else,” Warmuth explained. “But a couple of things had jumped out at me at the time, like the story he tells about watching Joe Tex on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson [in the late 1980s]. As a Joe Tex fan, I knew that Joe Tex would have been dead already.”
Warmuth threw himself into his new Dylan decoding project. He began studying cryptography, code-breaking and puzzle-solving books. He began crowdsourcing his finds with other Dylan fans, among them Edward M. Cook, a Catholic University associate professor who specializes in Dead Sea Scroll translations.
“It just built and built from there, and got more fascinating as we went along,” Warmuth told me. Each discovery—many harvested from simple Google Books searches—drew Warmuth in deeper and deeper.
In one memorable passage in Chronicles, Dylan offers a vivid description of country legend Johnny Cash: “Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of consciousness obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.”
Nearly every word in that description, Warmuth reports, has been cut, pasted and recast from the Jack London short story The Son of the Wolf. Indeed, Warmuth eventually would compile a list of Jack London appropriations in Chronicles that ran 12 pages long.
Elsewhere in Chronicles, Warmuth says he found several anecdotes which are “barely disguised rewrites of stories from Gerry Hirshey’s Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music.
When Warmuth found similarities between phrases in Chronicles and Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s book about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, American Rhapsody, he was dumbfounded. “Even I was thinking, ‘There’s no chance,’ but as it turns out, some of the more salty lines in Chronicles comes from Eszterhas!”
At other points in the book, Dylan appears to be telegraphing his intentions, Warmuth says.
On page 82 of Chronicles, for example, Dylan writes: “Both Len and Tom wrote topical songs—songs where you’d pick articles out of newspapers, fractured, demented stuff—some nuns getting married, a high school teacher taking a flying leap off the Brooklyn Bridge, tourists who robbed a gas station, Broadway beauty being beaten and left in the snow, things like that.”
The examples Dylan cites are the actual headlines (“Nun Will Wed Gob,” “Tourists Rob Gas Station,” “Broadway Beauty Beaten”) from a 1936 John Dos Passos’ novel, The Big Money. “The headlines he lists are actual headlines that Dos Passos had cut out and used in his writing, so—with things like that, Dylan’s tipping his hat, saying ‘This is exactly what I’m doing here.’” He “lets you know that he’s hip to this experimental writing technique.”
Elsewhere in Dylan’s memoir, Warmuth has turned up what appears to be a thinly veiled borrowing from Robert Greene’s 1998 self-help bestseller The 48 Laws of Power.
Page 159 of Chronicle: “Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren’t even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key—all deceptively simple. You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust that the listeners maker their own connections, and it’s very seldom they don’t. Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm.”
Page 216 of The 48 Laws of Power: “Passion and enthusiasm swept through the crowd like a contagion…Always in a rush to believe in something, we will manufacture saints and faiths out of nothing…In searching, as you must, for the methods that will gain you the most power for the least effort, you will find the creation of a cult-like following one of the most effective.” Earlier, on page 214, Greene writes: “It is often wiser to use such dupes in more innocent endeavors, where mistakes and miscalculations will cause no serious harm.”
And then there are the more comical samplings.
“Sometimes what Dylan has done with material from other sources is witty, crafty, and sly,” Warmuth writes in the New Haven Review essay. “Other times it’s just sloppy. For instance, he works in some delicate touches when he recalls his encounter with Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “Conquistador.” “In the same passage, though, many remarks that Dylan claims MacLeish made in conversation are lifted from MacLeish’s introduction to The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, where Sandburg’s own “Notes for a Preface” also appear. “Dylan seems to have conflated the two, perhaps flipping pages and not realizing that MacLeish’s words have ended and Sandburg’s have begun, with the result that [Dylan’s recollected] ‘conversation’ with MacLeish becomes a bizarre mix of the voices of both MacLeish and Sandburg.”
All told, Warmuth said he has compiled a list of more than 1,000 appropriations, or “citations” as he calls them, in Chronicles. And in Dylan’s recent albums, it’s not just words that Dylan is appropriating. In a remarkable audio comparison Warmuth posted on YouTube, he shows how much of Dylan’s Love and Theft appears indebted to The New Lost City Ramblers, a late 1950s old-time string band, whose leader, John Cohen, is the “John” in the Grateful Dead’s single “Uncle John’s Band.”
A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster, which published both Chronicles and Kinney’s new book The Dylanologists, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Dylan’s writing techniques. A spokesperson for Dylan also declined comment.
For his part, Dylan’s only public comments on charges that he appropriated or plagiarized some of his later work came in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, where his response was explicit and unequivocal: “All those motherfuckers can rot in hell,” he said. "Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff….It’s an old thing,” he said of appropriation. “It's part of the tradition. It goes way back.”
Thomas, the Harvard classics professor, agrees that Dylan’s pastiche approach falls within a well-established literary tradition.
“You could start with [T.S.] Eliot,” Thomas told me. “Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ borrows or steals from any number of figures, from ancient Greek epigrams to Dante, basically.”
“Virgil himself was accused of stealing from Homer, and the voice of Bob Dylan is like that,” Thomas said. To underscore his point, he quoted to me Virgil’s response to charges of that he plagiarized Homer, as recounted in Roman historian Suetonius’ The Life of Virgil: “Why don’t they try the same thefts? They’ll find out it’s easier to snatch Hercules’ club from him than a single line from Homer.”
“What Virgil meant by that,” Thomas explains, “is that to steal means to improve upon, which is basically what Dylan is doing.”
Thomas himself has spent years delightedly uncovering and crowdsourcing allusions and appropriations to Ovid and Virgil in Love & Theft, Modern Times and Dylan’s 2012 release, Tempest. He and others, including a New Zealand creative writing teacher, have crowdsourced 19 appropriations of Ovid on Modern Times alone.
Dylan’s “layering of his work with intertexts from Ovid and Virgil enriches and universally changes the context of those lines, so that where we first heard a line from Virgil—with Dylan’s intertextual usage of the line in a new context—it becomes something new.”
Thomas says Dylan’s unique brand of recycling language and melody is consistent with his literary predecessors.
“The start of the process is to discover that the theft has happened, but what’s really important is the next step—to think about what effect the intertext in the song has on you as a listener.”
“Whether it’s Timrod or Ovid or Twain, literature is letting the prior context be transmuted into something completely new.”
Put another way, Thomas says, “If you’re dumb enough to believe this is like a student plagiarizing a paper in school, that’s your own problem.”
Neither Thomas nor Kinney believes that every last “citation” Warmuth has uncovered is irrefutable, but both feel he has stumbled onto a significant new way to understand Dylan’s creative process.
“The question is…what does it all amount to?” Kinney asks, ever the journalist. What Dylan appears to be doing in Chronicles and elsewhere in recent work is “sort of like a little parlor trick,” he says. “Is there more to it than that? Who knows?”