T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” But the question is, what’s the difference?
When you borrow in writing, you allow the originator to maintain ownership of the idea by providing an allusion to the original text or giving the source as a direct quotation. You let it be known that this idea you’re using, it’s not yours; you’re just borrowing it.
But when you steal in writing, you take the original idea and make it your own. I’m not talking about plagiarism or copyright theft, both of which are unforgivable; instead, I’m talking about letting the original idea marinate inside your soul until it takes on the unique flavor of you.
Let’s put this in musical terms by looking at two different covers of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
The first cover, by Richie Havens, increases the rhythm a little bit, but the song remains essentially the same. Havens borrows the tune from Dylan, rather than stealing it.
Jimi Hendrix, however, steals the song outright.
Comparing Dylan’s version to Hendrix’s for the American Musicological Society, Albin Zak III writes:
There is little in Dylan’s recording of the song—a spare, folklike acoustic rendition—that would seem to have invited either Hendrix’s flamboyant electrified version or its eclectic attitude. Although Hendrix’s “All along the Watchtower” contains all of the song’s basic elements and retains its theme of alienation and apprehension, its affective sense is altogether different. While Dylan’s is a stark glimpse of an overheard fragment reported in the third person, Hendrix’s is wrought in large dramatic gestures in which he, though ostensibly the song’s narrator, appears to have an overtly protagonistic role. In both versions, the song’s characters, a joker and a thief, may be seen as facets of the artist’s persona, two sides of an internal dialogue. But…Dylan’s arrangement imparts an air of detachment, while Hendrix, in deepening the musical problem both sonically and syntactically, situates himself firmly at the center of the song.
In taking on Dylan’s song, Hendrix does not provide a veritable note-for-note remake like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s covers of Dylan’s songs, nor a slightly stylized remake, like Richie Havens. Instead, he takes the song into the core of his being until it becomes his and his alone, a sonic scream that Dylan couldn’t have pulled off in his wildest dreams.
And now when people do covers of “All Along the Watchtower,” they bypass Dylan’s original and aim instead for Hendrix.
Because he stole that song, claimed ownership, made it his. And that’s what makes it great.
You should do the same.