Paul Clayton and Bob Dylan: Don’t Think Twice
A long time ago, I went to the library to search for an album by Burl Ives that I had already looked unsuccessfully everywhere else for. One song on it was about whales in Greenland, so I focused on that one because I don’t know the name of the song that was my favorite. I came across an album of sea shanties by a folksinger named Paul Clayton that had the song “The Greenland Whale Fisheries.” In my opinion, Clayton was by no means in Burl Ives’ league but the songs really grew on me. I played that album a lot till it broke but, fortunately, I had made a cassette tape of it, so I played that a lot too. It’s no wonder that these songs still play in my head now and then.
I know they are on a youtube playlist and I decided to play them the other day, but this time, I took a look at the comments to see if anyone had anything to say about Clayton’s voice. Imagine my surprise to learn that Clayton was the person who inspired Bob Dylan to write his 1962 hit song “Don’t Think Twice.” Indeed, there is a huge argument in the comments on Paul Clayton’s song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone),” the one Dylan allegedly “ripped off.”
Wikipedia has a short entry on Paul Clayton’s page about the alleged plagiarism. (I don’t know when it was added, but I know it wasn’t there when I read this page years ago and learned about Clayton’s suicide at age 36.) It says that Clayton based his song on a folk song in the public domain “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens.” Dylan heard it and told Clayton he was going to use it. Their publishing companies sued each other, it was settled out of court and Dylan and Clayton remained friends. In the 2008 book “Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival,” author Bob Coltman relates a different take on the topic from Clayton’s best friend, Stephen Wilson, who said “Clayton was extremely poisoned by the fact that Dylan had not given him half credit,” although Wilson himself thought Dylan’s take on the song was original.
I’ve only read what is available on the google books preview I linked to above, and my chances of ever getting that book in print don’t look good. However, I suppose only Dylan knows whether Clayton told him about or showed him the original song that was not copyright. It’s certainly not unheard of for singers and songwriters to come up with new versions of folk songs and other material and not give credit to the source. Glen Campbell did it with a song called “Less of Me,” also known as “Let Me Be a Little Kinder.” It is a line by line copy of a poem by Edgar A. Guest. I’m not too sure that Campbell even knew that himself. I think that’s wrong– to let people think you wrote something all on your own when you didn’t.
Folk and pop singer and songwriter, Jimmie Rodgers, on the other hand, would credit songs to the public domain, such as “English Country Garden,” and then put “adapted by Jimmie Rodgers.” I think that’s the right way to do it, but it doesn’t appear that Clayton gave the “Chickens” song a nod, and of course, Dylan didn’t give one to “Chickens” or Clayton’s “Ribbons” or there never would have been any issues.