Dylan's teenage poem revealed as first cover

'Early work' listed for sale found to be a revised version of another artist's song

By David Usborne
Wednesday 05 March 2014 05:52

It was a proud Christie's auction house that revealed this week that an upcoming sale of Bob Dylan memorabilia would include a poem written at summer camp when he was only 16 years old.

Here, they suggested, was a first fragment of Dylan lyrics written in his own hand. As it turns out, it is actually the first ever Dylan "cover".

As we know, musical artists don't plagiarise, ever: rather, they "cover" one another. And so it was, apparently, in 1957, when a young kid named Bob Zimmerman scribbled out a poignant little poem on two sides of a single sheet of paper in blue ink – and signed it – for submission to his Jewish summer camp newspaper in Wisconsin.

The paper, called the Herzl Herald, did not to think to its question the provenance of the poem. Nor did its editor and fellow camper, Lisa Heilicher. And when Zimmerman became Dylan and became famous, she placed the poem in clear plastic for safe-keeping. Called "Little Buddy" and describing the sadness of a little boy witnessing a drunkard murdering his pet dog, the verses seemed dolefully Dylan.

But when Ms Heilicher decided finally to give up the poem for sale to help raise funds for the same summer camp in Wisconsin – the cabins are in need of refurbishment – you might have thought that the folks at Christie's would have been more vigilant in determining its origin.

They were not, however, and on Tuesday they were waving it before reporters in New York as a genuine article and setting a guide price estimate of $15,000.

Some red faces were surely in order by mid-morning yesterday, however, when Dylan scholars who happened to read about the 23 June Dylan sale and saw extracts from the poignant poem in their newspapers or on their computer screens noticed something that no one at Christie's headquarters had. This particular Dylan lot, they said in unison, should go under the tagline: "It Ain't Me, Babe". Because it ain't.

"It's a very early example of his brilliance," Simeon Lipman, a pop culture specialist at Christie's, had declared. "It comes from the mind of a teenager [with] some very interesting thoughts kind of percolating in his brain."

One segment of the poem, described by Christies as "dark and mournful", runs: "I'll meet my precious buddy up in the sky/ By a tiny narrow grave/ Where the willows sadly wave."

But far from offering us a first glimpse of Dylan's undoubted prowess as a writer of lyrics, it shows only that at that tender age he knew a good song when he heard one.

His "Little Buddy" was sadly the same almost word for word, with only a couple of small variations, as the "Little Buddy" that had already been written and performed by the late Canadian country singer Hank Snow.

But wait. Is it possible that Snow, who also called himself "The Yodelling Ranger", borrowed from Dylan? It doesn't seem so. Initial research suggests that the song was released as an 78 RPM record on the RCA Invicta label in 1948. Young Zimmerman would have been a mere seven years old at the time.

Never mind all this, however. Christie's is apparently unabashed, and content to continue to offer the poem for sale next month.

"Additional information has come to our attention about the handwritten poem submitted by Bob Dylan to his camp newspaper, written when he was 16, entitled "Little Buddy'," the auction house announced sheepishly last night.

"The words are in fact a revised version of lyrics of a Hank Snow song. This still remains among the earliest known handwritten lyrics of Bob Dylan and Christie's is pleased to offer them in our Pop Culture auction."

Whether they fetch the kind of money that they (and the dilapidated summer camp) had been hoping for is, of course, quite another question.

Little Buddy: The lyrics

"Your too late sir my doggy's dead

And no one can save him now

But I'll meet my precious buddy up in the sky

By a tiny narrow grave

Where the willows sadly wave"

Words from "Little Buddy", apparently by Bob Dylan, actually by Hank Snow, which Christie's called "a very early example of [Dylan's] brilliance".

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