Dylan 'borrowed' from obscure Civil War poet, say critics

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 15 September 2006 00:00 BST

For decades, music fans and critics have pondered over the inspiration behind Bob Dylan's free-rolling words and music. Was it the dope, was it the dreaming or was it simply the result of living in the Sixties? But now a much more unlikely muse has been revealed behind the 65-year-old musician's latest collection of songs: a long dead, little-known poet from the American Civil War.

While experts have not directly accused Dylan of plagiarism over the songs on his latest album, Modern Times, which is number one in the US charts, they say there appears to be little doubt that he has liberally "borrowed" from the works of the Confederate poet Henry Timrod.

For instance, the lines in his song "When the Deal Goes Down", in which Dylan sings: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours", bear a striking resemblance to lines contained in Timrod's "A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night", which reads: "A round of precious hours, Oh! Here where in that summer noon I basked, And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers." Elsewhere in the same song, Dylan sings "Where wisdom grows up in strife" - very similar to a line in Timrod's poem "Retirement", which reads: "There is a wisdom that grows up in strife."

Walter Cisco, author of a biography of the poet, entitled Henry Timrod, said he was certain that Dylan had borrowed from the writer. Speaking from his home in Orangeburg, South Carolina, he said: "It's amazing. There is no question that is where it came from. It's too much to be a coincidence. I'm just delighted that Timrod is getting some recognition."

Born in 1828, Timrod worked as a private tutor on a plantation before the Civil War. Many of his earlier poems were about nature, but with the outbreak of war he started to write about the hardships caused by the conflict and its impact on people's lives.

Though he is today considered a minor poet, the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described him as the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy. Timrod died of tuberculosis in 1867.

Dylan's apparent borrowing of Timrod's work was first uncovered by Scott Warmuth, a radio disc jockey based in New Mexico, who used the internet to try to discover the source of Dylan's lyrics. He said he found 10 instances on the album where Dylan's lyrics are similar to Timrod's poetry.

Mr Warmuth told the New York Times: "I think that's the way Bob Dylan has always written songs. It's part of the folk process, if you look from his first album to now." But he said he still considered Dylan's work to be original. "You could give the collected works of Henry Timrod to a bunch of people but none of them are going to come up with Bob Dylan songs," he said.

Mr Warmuth originally posted his findings on the internet forum Dylan Pool. There, not everyone agreed with his assessment that Dylan's borrowing was acceptable. One displeased poster, Harvey, wrote: "Bob really is a thieving little swine - the melodies, the riffs, the solos, hell entire songs even.

"And now the lyrics. If it was anyone else we'd be stringing them up by their neck, but no, it's Bobby Dee and it's 'the folk process'." He added: "I wonder can I get my PhD via 'the folk process'? I hear that's what Vladimir Putin did."

This is not the first time that Dylan has been accused of borrowing from other sources. When his previous album, Love and Theft, was released in 2001, a fan discovered around a dozen instances where the lyrics were similar to lines contained within Confessions of a Yakuzsa, an obscure Japanese gangster novel by Junichi Saga. It was revealed, for instance, that a line on the song "Floater", where Dylan sang: "I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound" echoed a line in the book which said: "I'm not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded."

Neither Dylan nor his record company, Columbia Records, has commented on the allegations.

However, internet chatrooms dedicated to Dylan and his music are busy with speculation and comment.

Some fans have also pointed out that Dylan may have left a deliberate clue in the title of his album, Modern Times, which contains the letters used to spell Timrod.

Dylan's debt

Henry Timrod

"A round of precious hours

Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked

And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers..."

("A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night")

Bob Dylan

"More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours."

("When the Deal Goes Down")

Henry Timrod

"There is a wisdom that grows up in strife"


Bob Dylan

"Where wisdom grows up in strife"

("When the Deal Goes Down")

Henry Timrod

"Which, ere they feel a lover's breath,

Lie in a temporary death"

("Two Portraits")

Bob Dylan

"In the dark I hear the night birds call

I can hear a lover's breath

I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall

Sleep is like a temporary death"

("Workingman's Blues number 2")

Henry Timrod

"How then, O weary one! Explain

The sources of that hidden pain?"

("Two Portraits")

Bob Dylan

"Can't explain the sources of this hidden pain"

("Spirit on the Water")

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