Thursday, December 09, 2010

OLD 97 and The Right Way to Steal Bob Dylan

First time I heard Old 97's "Champaign, Illinois" (via their guest spot on "The Tonight Show,") I instantly heard, note for note, Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row." And I thought, "WTF…how did they get away with that??"

It turns out…they asked.

Rhett Miller of Old 97 was looking for inspiration. Many songwriters including Bob Dylan ("Blowing in the Wind") start off with somebody else's melody, craft new lyrics, then go back and adapt the melody. Lennon and McCartney were always saying "Let's write a Buddy Holly song…let's write something like Chuck Berry." Miller decided to use Dylan's "Desolation Row" for inspiration. Miller talking: "I'll take this tune I knew inside and out and come up with new lyrics." Dylan used the same formula. Dylan talking: "What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head…At a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song."

The next step is usually to strip off the old melody and use the lyrics to inspire a new one. Or at least "adapt" the melody so its origin isn't so obvious. If you don't do either, you're in for trouble. Everyone from Johnny Cash to John Lennon to George Harrison to Dylan himself has either paid a settlement for intentional or unintentional mis-use or suffered embarrassing whispers about their creativity and integrity.

Miller liked the melody for "Desolation Row" so much he didn't want to mess around and alter it: "I was really happy with it, and I thought, this is a sweet little song, and it kind of exists on its own. And then I sat on it forever for fear of legal repercussion."

Ultimately, he took a chance and sent the song over to Bob Dylan's office. Maybe Bob had been to Champaign, Illinois and considered it pretty close to Desolation Row. Whatever, Miller was granted permission as long as Bob got a co-write for having written the music. (I know…The Mighty Dylan has, more than once, NOT asked permission to use somebody else's words, etc. etc. etc.) The bottom line? We all have different views of morality, and the line we don't cross can be set close, or way in the distance. As for "sharing," this blog ain't gonna steal "Champaign, Illinois" off the group's actual CD. Instead, you get the version you can't buy…the live one from Leno's show. Which is still theft, but more of a petit larceny. To quote Bob Dylan (or did he borrow it from The Bible), "Ain't no man righteous, not one."

DESOLATION ROW turns into CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS Instant download or listen on line. No capcha codes, wait times or money extortion.


Cheshire Adams said...

I actually live here, and somehow I've not heard of OLD 97 until now....

You've probably heard (well, seen) me ramble on about this often enough, Illfolks, but, everyone else: you could tell me the leading cause of death in this town is boredom, and I wouldn't question it. Ground is totally flat. Nothing of real historical interest. If there's a really good museum, entertainment venue or anything like that here, nobody told me about it in my 21 years here.

This town just sort And I'm not sure if the effort to gather publicity by some people via a snowman and a bus is commendable or misguided.

Anyway, cheers! Hadn't been over here in a while..... Σ:+)

Ill Folks said...

No wonder you enjoyed climbing around Tennessee some months back!

Anonymous said...

Dylan cowrote a song with Carl Perkins called "Champaign, Illinois" in 1969. So the Old 97s put a famous Dylan tune + obscure Dylan title + their own lyrics together-- quite a funny performance, all around.