Steve Earle gave three hours of lecture (with lunch breaks) for three days at Camp Copperhead (2015). All sorts of themes emerged during the course. With so many threads of wisdom shared, I was grateful for the pens and notebooks provided. It would have been enjoyable enough to sit back and soak in Earle’s thoughts. Without a doubt he is a performer and his personality is fascinating. But he can teach too. As a result I am able to dig through the scrawled handwriting in my notebook and discover veins of gold to trace.


Earle is not shy about admitting he has always been a fan of Bob Dylan. He warned us that no one can ever do what Dylan does as well as he has done it. At the same time he encouraged us to follow in his footsteps. “Hold yourself to the standard of Bob Dylan,” said Earle, “I gave up trying to be him, but I hold myself to that standard and understand what I’m chasing.” Earle explained that genius is not being smarter than everyone else: it is having the ability to do something new or so well that it is reinvented. In this way, Bob Dylan is a genius and most especially was when his career was finding a foothold.

Earle pointed us to Dylan’s speech at MusiCares (2015) where we find the master lyricist saying:

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.


Earle gave us an assignment on the third day of lecture: find Henry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and listen to it (the picture above is of the copy I found at my local public library). “Folk is a back tracking process,” Earle told us. “Go back in the public domain and find a melody and write a new lyric to it.” This is exactly what Bob Dylan did in the early days and what he admits to in the MusiCares speech. The public domain is meant to provide us with a cultural treasure trove of art and ideas to rework and build with. Copyright is meant to protect work from being stolen directly for a certain amount of time (some would say it is too long now as compared to the early 20th century when it became a law). In modern times, copyright violation can lead an artist into a black hole of self-annihilation (Shia LeBeouf) or it can be handled with style and grace (Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith). The public domain is fair game.  


When I was thirteen, my step-father gave me a mixtape. It had a combination of Dylan songs from the Bootleg Series on one side and Social Distortion’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell on the other. I listened to it constantly (I still have the tape but converted it to digital). When I listened to the first volume of the Smith Anthology, two songs immediately sounded familiar to me: “House Carpenter” recorded by Clarence Ashley and “Down on Penny’s Farm” by The Bentley Boys. They were both two songs I loved on the mixtape. What Earle had said about Dylan and the public domain started to make perfect sense. Dylan had nabbed the songs and reinvented them. 

Compare the songs below. First is “House Carpenter” by Clarence Ashley and the next is the version by Bob Dylan. In this case, the lyrics by Dylan are close but make a more solid story to me. 

In the next comparison below you can hear how Bob Dylan completely changed the song “Down on Penny’s Farm” to “Hard Times in New York Town.” He kept some snippets of lyrics the same and reused the melody.

Now, I could be wrong about some of what I have written here. I would not be surprised. Perhaps Dylan had listened to a different version of Penny’s Farm that mentioned New York City. Perhaps the “House Carpenter” version Dylan heard was not by Clarence Ashley and his was closer to whatever he had. To be careful, though, I must consider what Steve Earle said: “If you get too academic, it gets really difficult to make art”. With that in mind, I am just exploring here. Or maybe it is more like I am prospecting for a gold mine of songwriting wisdom. Either way, I think I have found a darn valuable nugget. I intend to find a song in the public domain (probably from Henry Smith’s Anthology) and use its parts to make my own song. That is something I have never done. It is good to go somewhere I have never been.


© Jared Burton (words and images).