Bob Dylan flipping lyric cue cards in the iconic video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’; Photo: Bob Dylan/Vevo/YouTube

The Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter Bob Dylan may have lifted passages from the SparkNotes for Moby-Dick for his Nobel lecture, reports Slate.

Plagiarism is a strong accusation and, if true, could be punishable by law. You can’t just throw out the P-word and not expect consequences.

But unfortunately, Slate puts forth a pretty strong case.

Dylan, speaking about the effect Moby-Dick had on his songwriting, says, “Captain Boomer — he lost an arm to Moby. But … he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.” In the SparkNotes for Moby-Dick, it says, “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 phrase “lust for vengeance” is not in the book but only in the SparkNotes for the book. And out of the 78 sentences where Dylan describes Moby-Dick, more than a dozen of them “closely resemble” lines or phrases from the SparkNotes.


Some of the above comparisons are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.

However, this isn’t a new accusation, Dylan stealing other people’s creations. In the 1960s, at the height of his popularity, people claimed Dylan was plagiarizing traditional folk tunes.

A man named Kirby Ferguson, who says every created thing is a remix of something before it, gave a TED Talk where he compares, side-by-side, traditional songs with Dylan’s songs and shows how the songwriter may have been more of a song borrower.

“It’s been estimated that two-thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed,” Ferguson says.

One example Ferguson gives is the similarity between Paul Clayton‘s “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Clayton’s song goes:

It ain’t no use to sit and sigh now, darlin’
And it ain’t no use to sit and cry now
It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin’
Just wonder who’s gonna buy you ribbons when I’m gone

Dylan’s song goes:

Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t mattered anyhow
And it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter anyhow

So did Dylan just do with his Nobel lecture what he seems to have done with his songwriting, steal like an artist, as author Austin Kleon says?

Or, alternatively, maybe this is Dylan’s way of sticking it to the Nobel Prize committee. If that’s the case — if Dylan did this on purpose as a middle finger to the powers that be — the irony would be too much to handle.