Bob Dylan's Words Find Place In Legal Writings

Robert Siegel talks to Alex Long, University of Tennessee law professor who contends that Bob Dylan's song lyrics are used more than any other writer's in court opinions and briefs. He chronicles the artist's influence on today's legal community. From U.S. Supreme Court rulings to law school courses, Dylan's words are used to convey messages about the law and courts gone astray.

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(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

How many times can a judge cite a song to adorn some obscure point of law? And how many times can a lawyer cite songs for the client he's arguing for? Yes, and what if the song is a Bob Dylan song? Could it be a hundred times or more? Well, the answer, my friend, was 186 times. The answer was 186 times.

That is how often Bob Dylan lyrics were quoted in court filings and scholarly legal publications according to a study in 2007 by University of Tennessee law professor Alex Long, who joins us now from Knoxville.

Welcome to the program.

Professor ALEX LONG (University of Tennessee): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And let's start with your finding. Bob Dylan, I gather, is the most cited songwriter in American legal writing, and it's not even close.

Prof. LONG: Yeah. It's Dylan in a landslide. The Beatles, Springsteen, The Rolling Stones come up behind him. But, yeah, he's way out in front.

SIEGEL: What led you to study these citations, and how many documents did you go through?

Prof. LONG: Ooh, I don't even want to think about how many documents I went through. But music's never too far from my mind. And when I had down time, in between classes or in between writing, I occasionally just hop on to a legal database and just see out of curiosity if any of my favorite artists had been cited. And then eventually, that just sort of spiraled out of control into this unwieldy project that consumed way too much of my time for a while.

SIEGEL: Oh, wow. And which Dylan songs are most commonly cited by judges or lawyers?

Prof. LONG: The most commonly cited song is "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and in particular, one line from it.

(Soundbite of song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Keep a clean nose. Watch the plain clothes. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Prof. LONG: California court of appeals cites that line quite a bit in their opinions, to the point now that it's almost boilerplate. It comes up when in the course of a trial, you need to introduce evidence. Sometimes, that evidence is complicated. Scientific evidence can be difficult for the jury to understand, and sometimes, you need the expert testimony who can explain it to the jurors. But sometimes, you don't need the expert testimony, and so the California court has said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

SIEGEL: Know which way the wind blows. I noticed you said that the number six votes cited songwriter would be The Rolling Stones or the source of lyrics. Is that a lot of judges saying, you can't always get what you want?

Prof. LONG: Yeah. I think that accounts for a lot of it. And a lot of times, it's a particular phrase. A song title just happens to be particularly catchy, and that's what accounts for the frequent citation. I think that's the case for The Rolling Stones.

SIEGEL: Now, I read - we learned about your work from an article in the Los Angeles Times. And I learned from reading that article that while we associate Dylan with liberal left writings, there actually have been citations by both Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts of Dylan lyrics.

Prof. LONG: Yeah. Just in the past three years, Roberts and Scalia have both cited Dylan, and for the first time ever, I think, in Supreme Court decisions.

SIEGEL: What did Antonin Scalia find citable in Dylan?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LONG: Scalia's was kind of funny. It was an employment law case in which the question was whether an employee had an expectation of privacy in his pager, his text messages. And the court largely ducked that question out of a concern that technology was advancing so rapidly that it might come ahead of the decision. The majority sort of ducked it, and Scalia took the majority to task for having ducked the opinion and said, you know, well, "the times they are a changing" is a feeble excuse for disregard of one's judicial duty to go decide an issue.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the Scalia citation. Chief Justice Roberts cited "Like a Rolling Stone."

(Soundbite of song, "Like a Rolling Stone")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You're invisible now. You've got no secrets to conceal.

SIEGEL: From the "Dylan Goes Electric" moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LONG: Yeah. It was a pretty dry case just involving the issue of whether one party had standing. And Roberts concluded that they didn't and said - used the Dylan line from "Like a Rolling Stone," when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose, to try to convey the idea that they lacked standing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Is this a project that you're updating constantly, are you adding to the 2007 work or...

Prof. LONG: No. Although I still get emails and such from lawyers and judges who tell me from time to time how they've worked in songs into their opinions or into the briefs that they've filed. I had a lawyer from San Francisco tell me that he always tries to work in The Grateful Dead whenever he files something with the court. I had another judge somewhere give me a copy of an opinion that he had written in which the entire opinion was written around Beatles lyrics. Every sentence in there included some line from a Beatles song. It was pretty funny.

So, no, I'm not consciously updating it, but it sort of unconsciously -it keeps filtering in down to me.

SIEGEL: Well, Alex Long, we should say your day job as a law professor at the University of Tennessee is teaching Torts and Professional Responsibility?

Prof. LONG: Correct.

SIEGEL: But we're grateful for your hobby, as well, in researching song lyrics in the law. Thanks for talking with us.

Prof. LONG: Thank you. It's fun.

(Soundbite of song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift. Look out kids, they keep it all hid. Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle. Don't wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals. Don't want to be a bum, you better chew gum. The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.

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