A few months back, Jen and I went to a dinner party, one of the first in a long time, post-COVID. The food and conversation were lovely, but one person in the group launched into a diatribe against George Harrison, the deceased lead guitarist of the Fab Four.
The Beatles, in my mind, are unassailable. They left a remarkable legacy of music and creative innovation for the 20th century. And each member of the group contributed something unique to the Beatles’ alchemy. The group would not have been the same force without any one of them.
Sullied by plagiarism
Our friend’s criticism was withering. All of Harrison’s contributions, he said, were sullied by the fact that he was found guilty in a lawsuit that accused him of plagiarizing. Parts of Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” a judge found, had been copied from an earlier song, “He’s So Fine,” written and performed in 1963 by the American “girl group,” The Chiffons.
“He was a terrible guitarist, too,” our friend railed, piling on his contempt. His evidence seemed to be George’s inability to read music and not knowing which key a song was. We’d been talking about Get Back, the recent Beatles documentary about one of the group’s last recording sessions. 1
In the movie, George was clearly struggling to keep up with the torrent of musical ideas issuing from Lennon and McCartney. George was only trying to do the bidding of Paul, who had a clear picture of what he wanted in the song on which they were working. And he was being a bit of a tyrant trying to get the others to go along with him.
Deserving of contempt?
Many at our dinner table were taken aback by our friend’s rant. A few of us raised eyebrows at each other in disbelief. What did George do to deserve this contempt?
Harrison’s 1971 plagiarism suit was a humiliation, yet he was nothing but generous throughout the court case. He agreed it sounded like The Chiffons hit but maintained his innocence because he was unconscious of the similarities at the time.
“When I wrote the song, it was more improvised and not fixed,” he wrote in his autobiography, I, Me, Mine.
“Why didn’t I realize? It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.”
Simmering legal battles
After two years in court, he offered to pay the publisher 40 percent of the royalties for “My Sweet Lord.”
But Harrison had to battle in the courts for another eight years after the vindictive ex-Beatles manager, Alan Klein, got involved demanding Harrison pay more money. In 1981, he paid $587,000 to purchase the rights to “He’s So Fine.” Now Harrison owned the damn song! He cancelled the suit.
The idea that George set out to steal the song doesn’t fit with his character, or at least what we know of it. His admission that he was unconscious of the similarities had the ring of truth. His explanation of how he wrote the song sounded plausible. Let’s give him the benefit of doubt!
Sadly, George died of lung cancer in 2001, leaving behind a round-up of sublime hits like “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech
I recently listened to (and later read a transcript) of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech in 2016. It throws light on Harrison’s contention that artistic expression can be unconscious and mysterious.2
Dylan is no stranger to charges of plagiarism. You can find quite a few examples online, including the claim that he lifted parts of the Nobel acceptance speech directly from a SparkNotes study aid.
In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan responded to some of these accusations: “I’m working within my art form,” he said. “It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”
Make everything yours
Because Dylan didn’t attend the official Nobel ceremony, he was required to submit a formal acceptance in order to receive the $900,000 award for the Prize. He provided an audio recording of a speech discussing the meaning the Nobel Award held for him. 3. It’s a moving description of the role great works of literature played in his life and how these works informed his artistic vision. You can listen to it here, or read a transcript here.
Dylan makes a strong case for artistic license in the speech. He describes his formative period as an artist in the early part of his career.
By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it, sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details …
I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it travelled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
Striking a chord
Inspiration comes from any number of places. Things can strike a chord in you. The original creator of the work may not have imagined that.
Quotation, which touches the fuzzy line with plagiarism, is a rich and enriching tradition. People have been doing it for centuries. You borrow an idea or a line and make it yours.
The Dylan song, “Tin Angel” from one of my favourite albums, Tempest, clearly borrows from Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet:
She touched his lips and kissed his cheekBob Dylan, “Tin Angel”
He tried to speak, but his breath was weak
“You died for me; now I’ll die for you.”
She put the blade to her heart, and she ran it through.
You can trace this imagery through literature, art, song, and dance. “Romeo and Juliet” appears to have been lifted from the 15th-century Italian poet Masuccio Salernitano. It goes between Dylan and Shakespeare, but even Shakespeare borrowed those before him.
“Nothing new under the sun”
Shakespeare’s historical plays, most of the tragedies, and even the comedies were all borrowed from predecessors and turned into plays unmistakably his own.
In the Nobel speech, Dylan draws out three examples of western literature that were incredibly influential to him as a youth: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque Homer’s The Odyssey.
Reading Dylan’s summaries of these novels is like an overview of his canon: the epic stories, the titanic struggles, the colourful characters, the moral dilemmas. Some characters are obscure; some are blazingly real. Like these lines from the song “Desolation Row”:
Einstein disguised as Robin HoodBob Dylan, “Desolation Row”
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
Dylan’s never going to be sued for lines like these, unlike Harrison, but it illustrates how ideas can be lifted from one context and used in a different, original way.
A few musical notes
What got Harrison in trouble was a few musical notes in “My Sweet Lord.” They were too similar to those in a song by The Chiffons.
Harrison wrote about the “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit in ‘This Song ‘from the album Thirty-Three and a Third. It’s a clever depiction of the absurdities he faced over the years in court.
He didn’t have the stomach for legal wranglings of the trial, he wrote elsewhere, believing that most popular music was reminiscent of something which had come before.
Harrison’s former bandmate John Lennon may have put it more succinctly.
“Music is everybody’s business,” Lennon claimed. “It’s only the publishers who think people own it.”
See my earlier blog post about this remarkable documentary about the Beatles’ last days in the studio, which came out last November.↩
Bob Dylan did not attend the official Nobel award ceremony. Instead, he asked the rock singer, Patti Smith, to attend. Smith obliged, offering to sing one of Dylan’s most vivid songs, “A Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Her performance is breathtaking! Early on, choked with emotion and nerves, she stumbles. She forgets the words! Her presence and humility, and the silent support of the audience, allow her to recover and finish the song. But the performance on its own would have been sublime, even without the “gaffe.” The orchestration and vocal performance are incredibly stirring. I can’t watch it without sobbing!↩
Dylan joined a rarified atmosphere of literary genius, including Ernest Hemingway, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heany, Toni Morrison and many others↩
1 thought on “O, Sweet Lordy!”
Interesting. George Harrison was the most under-rated Beatle. While my guitar gently weeps is one of the all time greatest songs in my mind and in million’s of opinions. I would have liked to have been in on that conversation! I couldn’t agree with you more.
Good article David!