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Friday, May 20, 2011

Talent borrows, genius steals - and sometimes it's a Big Job

This afternoon, while recording a Word podcast to mark Bob Dylan's 70th, we were talking about the lines that he borrowed from other songs and how the images that seemed to spring from his psychedelic imagination were often flown in from earlier traditions. An instance is the line about "the railroad men drink up your blood like wine" from "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" which he got from Bascom Lamar Lunsford's 1924 song "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" which contained the lines "'Cause a railroad man they'll kill you when he can/And drink up your blood like wine."

When I was at school I learned T.S. Eliot's "Journey Of The Magi", which begins:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Reading Adam Nicholson's excellent book God's Secretaries about the men who made the King James Bible I learned that one of their leaders was Lancelot Andrewes who preached a sermon one Christmas Day in the early 17th century which began with these lines:

"A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter."

Eliot didn't try to pass this off as his own but nonetheless starting his poem with it, and such a large chunk of it, got him off the mark and provided the rhythm that makes the poem work. I wonder whether he blushed as he read it back. Probably not. Think I'll start doing the same.