Sunday, June 29, 2008

Facts, lyrics and double negatives

Adam Liptak has a piece in this morning's NYT on "The Chief Justice, Dylan and the Disappearing Double Negative".

The double negative in question is from Bob Dylan:
“The absence of any right to the substantive recovery means that respondents cannot benefit from the judgment they seek and thus lack Article III standing,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “ ‘When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone, on Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records 1965).”
Then, the return to the topic:
On the other hand, Chief Justice Roberts gets the citation wrong, proving that he is neither an originalist nor a strict constructionist. What Mr. Dylan actually sings, of course, is, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

It’s true that many Web sites, including Mr. Dylan’s official one, reproduce the lyric as Chief Justice Roberts does. But a more careful Dylanist might have consulted his iPod. “It was almost certainly the clerks who provided the citation,” Professor Long said. “I suppose their use of the Internet to check the lyrics violates one of the first rules they learned when they were all on law review: when quoting, always check the quote with the original source, not someone else’s characterization of what the source said.”
I listened to Highway 61 Revisited and and these 'facts' reflect what I saw/heard. But why would you assume that the version on the record is the version? I'm not sure what a 'poet' is, but I'm pretty sure Dylan is one. So, you might assume that he'd give priority to the text he wrote. But from what little I know about songwriters, they are pretty flexible about forms of the text. In some bands and for some songwriters, lyrics get written out, then sung. It could easily be that the print version is original in a pretty literal way.

I don't know how Dylan does it or sees it, but I'm guessing he doesn't really care.

Update, Monday, 5:30 a.m.: Completely forgot one of the key points I was going to make in the post: "When you got nothing" and "when you ain't got nothing" are basically equivalent sentences to me, metrically different and one maybe a little more emphatic than the other under the right circumstances, but a negligible difference. The written text differs more significantly on a set of points. Take the first part of the verse in question, in print:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
On the recording, it's this:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're all drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you'd better take your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
I was listening under bad circumstances yesterday but wasn't entirely sure whether it was 'you'd better' or 'you better'.

That's the kind of amount of variation you get between printed and sung lyrics for lots of folks. I remember when I was a kid, and Dylan was new and edgy, finding some of his lyrics just weird, what I'd now recognize as ungrammatical.* Usually, I clearly remember thinking he was doing some kind of poetry = archaic language thing. "All precious gifts" is exactly such a case. Here, I'd have to cite the printed lyric, even in a scholarly article, just to get it to work.

*Early on and into the 1970s, I bought Dylan records, listened to them a ton, and had trouble figuring out why I was doing it: My sense at the time was that he couldn't play, couldn't sing, his songs were weird and he talked funny. But I kept listening.


q-pheevr said...

But why would you assume that the version on the record is the version?

That's the version Chief Justice Roberts was purporting to cite. If he wanted to refer to a different version, then he shouldn't have attributed the quotation to that record.

Aniibiish said...

This is really fun, but I wonder about the transcription of Dylan's line, being someone who must constantly struggle with transcribing an essentially oral language. I don't think that "you" and "yuh" (or "ya") are the same in midwestern English, they rather qualitatively index different speech registers. So the line should be transcribed as "When yuh ain't got nothin', yuh got nothin' to lose." More issues of course, re the droppin' of the "g"'s (as it's popularly represented). And what about "to" -- it's pronounced tuh as well, but perhaps almost _always_, so not an indicator of anything. The "ain't" spelling bugs me a bit too, because I would never pronounce this with anything but a final glottal stop. Ergo, there's a ton of details here that are very important. I understand that even the most formal English involves elisions, collisions, etc., but many of those in Dylan's line carry particular social significance because they're so blinkin' socially salient.

On a slight sidenote, I noticed long ago that "ain't" has a very different social/usage status in songs than it does in speech. It's perfectly acceptable for middle-class singers to use "ain't," even that literatus extraordinaire, Leonard Cohen, sings, "There ain't no cure for love."

Mr. Verb said...

Q-pheevr, you're right that he should hew to the cited source, but the written lyrics -- like those on Dylan's own site -- have the language Roberts used.

I think I was challenging the notion of what's 'real' or 'right' in song lyrics in such a case. Aniibiish is pushing in a similar direction.

But I was posting in a hurry last night and forgot a key point ... see the update.

Anonymous said...

But people are making assumptions here: "always check the quote with the original source, not someone else’s characterization of what the source said." I assume Dylan's written lyrics are the source of what's on his site, whichever was written first.

Anonymous said...

But who's the punk dude in the pic?

Cheap Noble Warrior Adult Costume said...

That is the variant Chief Justice Roberts was implying to refer to. On the off chance that he needed to allude to an alternate variant, then he shouldn't have ascribed the citation to that record.