Originally Published: 5 August, 2012.
Many of Dylan’s songs are based upon traditional folk songs, both musically and lyrically. The most obvious examples are ‘Girl From The North Country’ and ‘With God On Our Side’. Listen to Rosanne Cash’s beautiful version of ‘Girl From The North Country’, which is my favourite version, here. Listen to Joan Baez performing ‘With God On Our Side’ in 1966, here.
Woody Guthrie often used the melody’s of old country songs to put his own words to, or took both the
words and lyrics of an old song, and updated it with his own message. Dylan and Guthrie were particularly effective at this, as often their versions were better than the originals. Case in point, Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’. The music and words are closely based on the gospel song, ‘This Train’, however Woody’s version has much better lyrics, a faster tempo and is more inspirational.
June Carter Cash demonstrated in a concert performance how Woody Guthrie used the melody of The Carter Family song, ‘Little Darling, Pal of Mine’ to put his own words to when creating the greatest song ever written about America, ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Dylan, even uses a Carter Family melody to create his song, ‘Titanic’ on his latest album, ‘Tempest’.The Carter Family also adapted traditional folk songs to create their own work, with A.P. Carter appropriating traditional Appalachian folk songs for his own material and recordings.
Dylan is working within folk conventions to create an archetypal folk song with the stock characters of
a romantic heroine and a lonesome traveller narrator. Dylan was successful to this end in that he created a beautiful folk ballad, whose romance and poignancy holds up to the best work in the genre. This idea is reinforced by Rosanne Cash who described ‘Girl From The North Country’ as being like an Elizabethan folk song.
Dylan is continuing in the folk tradition to this day. Regarding his new song ‘Titanic’ from his new album, ‘Tempest’, Dylan revealed he lifted the melody for the song from The Carter Family song, ‘The Titanic’. Dylan said, ‘I was just fooling with that one night. I liked that melody – I liked it a lot. Maybe I’m gonna appropriate this melody. But where would I go with it?’ Check out Dylan’s interview in Rolling Stone Magazine here.
UPDATE (16/09/12): Dylan comments on plagiarism charges, in the brilliant way that only he can, here.
 Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Great Britain: Continuum, 2006), p. 656.