In the ’60s, he was known as the Poet Laureate of Freedom. The 1860s, that is.
There are some striking parallels between John Greenleaf Whittier, the Massachusetts poet who was a household name around the time of the Civil War, and the much-mythologized Bob Dylan, who has been rummaging in the American idiom, with some notable success, for the past half-century. Both men wrote deeply about social and political issues in their youth before moving onto more personal observations. Both men faced vehement ridicule and scorn; both went through intense periods of seeking God. Both eventually turned away from their fame to look inward.
And Dylan, apparently, has taken note of some of those similarities. The songwriter, who performs at the TD Garden on Sunday, seems to have borrowed phrases from several of Whittier’s lesser-known poems for the song “Scarlet Town,” an anachronistic, funereal ballad about sin and redemption from his most recent album, “Tempest.”
Dylan, of course, has a long history of adapting the work of others — the practice of “intertextuality,” as the Dylanologists and literary critics call it. In recent years he’s faced questions about his appropriation of work by the Confederate poet Henry Timrod (on the 2006 “Modern Times” album) and the English translation of a Japanese oral history called “Confessions of a Yakuza” (on the aptly titled 2001 album “Love and Theft”).
BOB DYLAN & HIS BAND
Dylan evidently has no qualms about taking such inspiration; in a recent Rolling Stone interview he had harsh words for his accusers. He’s been answering such charges throughout his career.
“Yes, I am a thief of thoughts/ not, I pray, a stealer of souls,” as he wrote in a poem that originally appeared in the liner notes to his album “The Times They Are A-Changin’. ”
It’s part of the folk tradition, the songwriter has argued, to draw words and melodies from existing sources — in much the same way that a jazz musician might interpolate a phrase from a hit song or a hip-hop artist might sample a vintage record. Dylan’s early classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” borrowed liberally from a song by his friend, the New Bedford native Paul Clayton, who based his own song on a traditional ballad in the public domain.
Junichi Saga, the author of “Confessions of a Yakuza,” is said to have been flattered by Dylan’s attention, and those closest to Whittier’s work take the same perspective.
“One of my nieces sent me the lyrics” to “Scarlet Town,” said Whittier scholar John “Ben” Pickard,” 83, the poet’s great-grandnephew. “Few people read or think about Whittier today. It’s interesting that such a major figure would go ahead and use his work. I think it’s great.”
At the Whittier Home in Amesbury, where the poet lived from 1836 until his death in 1892 at age 84, the staff was delighted to sit down on a recent afternoon with copies of Whittier’s poems and the lyrics to “Scarlet Town.” They identified phrases from several of Whittier’s more obscure poems, including “The Chapel of the Hermits,” “To Avis Keene,” and “A Spiritual Manifestation.”
Whittier’s poems took on the same kind of topical vigor for which Dylan first became famous after he was introduced to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, said Pamela Fenner. “His poetry was so fiery you could feel the smoke in the room.”
Dylan’s reading of “The Chapel of the Hermits’’ was intriguing to Kristine Malpica, who is a performing musician. “It’s really about how the common man is divine,” she noted, poring over the printed pages in front of her. “Maybe Dylan is thinking about his own mortality?”
But it’s the songwriter’s hard-earned immortality that affords him a little more leeway than others, Dylan scholars contend. “He’s working within his art form, as he says,” said Kevin Barents, who teaches a class on Dylan’s lyrics at Boston University. “Should he put quotation marks around everything that’s ever been said before? In a song, you can’t hear quotation marks.”
Western Massachusetts writer Seth Rogovoy, author of a book that explores the singer’s Jewish heritage, agreed. Some of Dylan’s music of late has been in a traditional 12-bar blues style, like Muddy Waters, he pointed out.
“But I don’t think he’s ever done a blues song. He does Bob Dylan songs — that’s the difference. No matter where he's getting the raw material, consciously or unconsciously, it’s what he does with it that is most important.”
In his book “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” Rogovoy examines Dylan’s relation to Jewish Scripture. “How wonderful that he can immerse himself in Scripture, or a Whittier poem, or the ‘Yakuza’ book, and create something entirely new,” he said.
It is the nature of all art to comment on the art that preceded it, he suggested: “Nobody asks the painter to write next to his signature that he was influenced by Picasso.”
“In the end,” said Barents, “it’s a Dylan song, not a Whittier poem. . . . I don’t think he needs to dilute that by saying ‘This is half mine, and half somebody else’s.’ He’s one of the most creative people on the planet.”
Pickard, Whittier’s great-grandnephew, grew up in Newton and is now retired in North Carolina. As much as he admires his ancestor’s work, he matter-of-factly calls Whittier a “limited” poet. “He was a good poet, a popular poet, but that popularity fades and wanes. . . . Very few endure.”
By now it's long been established: Dylan, whatever else he might be, is one of the few.