Chapter 23
Did Dylan steal ‘Dignity’?

THERE WAS A RUMOR that Dylan had stolen the song ‘Dignity’, his only hit from the early 90s. The story goes as follows: Singer/songwriter James Damiano claims to have brought a number of songs of his to Dylan’s organization, among them ‘Steel Guitars’. Shortly after that, Dylan releases the song ‘Dignity’, which Damiano recognized as his own ‘Steel Guitars’.

I first thought there was something to the story, and I was about to write a note about it, in Damiano’s favour, when Damiano himself started his ‘spamming’ campaign (fall 1999), where he distributed documents from his case to just about every newsgroup on the Usenet.1 Among the items distributed was the following graph, which was supposed to demonstrate the similarities between the two melodies:


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Figure 23.1: Exhibit A: Reduction of Steel Bars and Dignity (from Damiano’s court documents.)

The graph is a strong reduction of the songs, to a relatively small number of structural pitches, without regard for rhythm, meter, phrasing etc. ‘Dignity’ is reduced to the tones b g | d’ e’ g’ e’ d’ b d’ | g a b g – only vaguely recognizable as the end of the first line (b g) and the rest of the verse. The following figure shows the Damiano/Green graph together with a transcription of the first verse of Dylan’s ‘Dignity’.


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Figure 23.2: Exhibit A illustrated: The actual tones of ‘Dignity’, and the Damiano graph

These tones are then related to a similar reduced graph of the tune ‘Steel Guitars’. The graph was accompanied by the following comment:

Doctor Green who graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University explains in his analysis that ‘The melodic arc found in both Bob Dylan’s ‘Dignity’ and James Damiano’s ‘Steel Guitars’ is more than a collection of shared pitches. It seems to embody the melodic shape or character of both songs. When played on it’s own it is reminiscent of both compositions’ Yet Judge Simandle writes ‘To the ear of this court, there is no substantial similarity in the melody of the two songs.’ The record reflects that Judge Simandle has no formal musical education. The record also reflects that James Damiano’s first copyright filing for ‘Steel Guitars’ was filed in 1982, nine years before Bob Dylan’s filing for a copyright registration with the Library of Congress. Bob Dylan’s copyright filing for ‘Dignity’ was filed in 1991 James Damiano’s 1982 copyright registration included the melody line of Bob Dylan’s ‘Dignity’ and also the lyrical hook of , ‘Dignity’ Bob Dylan’s copyright filing for ‘Dignity’ was filed in 1991.

To this I replied:

Nice to finally get to see the analysis itself – which doesn’t give much support to the infringement case, I’m afraid: A reduced diagram of a melody, stripped of both harmony and rhythm, doesn’t prove anything, because it doesn’t say very much about the music (not even about the original melody, in fact), especially not in a musical language that is based on a formulaic melodic style, such as rock/blues. The statement that ‘(2) and (3) can be considered the same note when they precede (1)’ is pure nonsense (and misspelt too). There is no such general law or principle in harmonic analysis – the wider context will be more decisive.

As for the similarity of the melodies (judging from the reduced graph, that is) – they are not as similar as the mathematician has it. The most distinctive features of this little snippet of Dylan’s song (which is the one I know) is the high g’, the descending fifth towards the end of the selection, and the descending third (coupled with the lack of a dominant chord where it would have been expected) at the very end. None of these elements are present in the Damiano song.

This is not to say that Dylan may not have been influenced by Damiano’s song – I haven’t heard it – only that that this piece of evidence in isolation is hardly worth the bytes that the jpg-file occupy.

Damiano countered:

To those people who have seen the above newsgroup post may I say that Mr. Eyolf Ostrem claims to be a musicologist however he left no e-mail address or contact information. One can conclude from that fact that Mr. Ostream does not even exist.

I was of course relieved:

Nice to finally get an authoritative opinion concerning my existence. In fact, I had serious suspicions yesterday when I woke up and looked in the mirror and I couldn’t see anybody there. (then I realized: that wasn’t me, that was John Lennon, and besides, it wasn’t a mirror after all, it was a window (but not the one that leads to the future)). As for ‘Mr Ostream’, I don’t know. He may not exist.

But Damiano continued:

Bob Dylan spent 3 million dollars on this litigation and produced one so called ‘musicologist’ in which this experts credentials were never discolsed. Through investigation I was told that Dylan?s music expert did not even have a degree and was only a musician.

Mr. Ostrem also is incorrect when he stated ‘especially not in a musical language that is based on a formulaic melodic style, such as rock/blues.’ What Mr. Ostem does not know is that a study was done on the very melody line and Doctor Green stated in his analysis that ‘the melody line is not common in the corpus of popular music’. Mr Ostrem also did not cite his credentials. Nor did he define musicologist. We only know that he is a memeber of the Bob Dylan web ring ‘Edlis’ and his name apperas on an Edlis Bob Dylan page at the following address: http://hem.passagen.se/obrecht/backpages/

I think it is only fair to ask Mr. ěstrem to kindly list his credentials concerning music theory.

Well, either Dylan (or his office; I seriously doubt that Dylan himself has ever concerned himself with this case) is stupid or he has more contacts in the music business than among musicologists. Which is fair enough – that’s where he’s supposed to be anyway.

As for Damiano’s counter-arguments, I could only reply:

The analysis quoted in the attached jpg file, is based on a reduction of the melody to what the analyst considers the essential scale steps of the melody. This method of analysis, at least as utilized in this case, draws on what is called Schenker analysis, which is taught ad nauseam at every american musicological department. One of the main problems with Schenker analysis is that it favors pitch content, and that it tends to conceal details of the music belonging to other parameters, such as rhythm, phrasing etc. The late Bo Alphonse, former professor in musicology at the McGill University in Montreal, has lucidly demonstrated the consequences of this bias, by showing that two pieces that sound completely different (a Chopin prelude and a Beetoven movement, I think it was), are virtually identical already on the first level of reduction (i.e. the level that corresponds most closely to Dr Green’s line).

The lesson learned from this, is that all reductive analysis runs the risk of concealing important elements by considering them as surface ornament. The ‘surface’ is, after all, the only place where the music is actually sounding; the rest is analysis.

As for the melody, in its reduced form it is basically broken g major triad with a sixth added for pentationic spice. If this isn’t formulaic and common in popular music, I don’t know what is. The broken triad is old as the rocks, and the figure 5-6-1 [g-a-d’] is, I would say, one of the more common cliche’s. Then again, that particular figure is not found in Damiano’s song, judging from the graph. One can hardly say that it is incorrect that the melody at this point is highly formulaic.

I welcome comments on my other points, concerning the alleged similarity of the melody, which still disregards some of the most distinct features of Dylan’s melody, and the analytical methods used to monkey-wrench the two melodies into the same mold. I also welcome a serious discussion concerning the content of all this, which I consider more important than titles (which I haven’t acquired yet) and credentials (I am a doctoral student, soon-to-be doctor, in musicology at Uppsala University, Sweden).2

BTW, I’ve been looking for this Doctor Green in periodicals of musicology, but I haven’t been able to find him anywhere. What is his full name? Does he even exist . . . ?

For a discussion of what a musicologist is, I refer to my article‘Music and the Wor(l)d – Musicology and Mankind: How we Got Out of Analysis, and How to Get Back In’, co-written with Lars Berglund and published in the Swedish Journal of Musicology, 2001.

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As a final note, I’d like to say that – despite the tone of my replies, which was a result of the weird experience of suddenly not existing – I have nothing against Damiano, and if Dylan actually has stolen his song, I think Damiano should get his due credits. My point was mainly a musicological one, concerning reductive analysis, and that in my view, based on the arguments above, the analysis does not support his claims. I have never heard his song, though, nor seen the sheet music; that would give a much better basis for a comparison.3