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Is Bob Dylan the Law's Most Important Artist?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Over five decades, Bob Dylan has left an indelible mark on American culture and music -- and even on the law. His lyrics are cited in judicial opinions more than any other writer's, winding up in everything from federal administrative law opinions (citing "Like a Rolling Stone") to state consumer fraud rulings ("It Ain't Me, Babe").

But Dylan's influence reaches beyond rhetorical flourishes and poetic asides, according to Vermont Law professor Philip N. Meyer. Dylan has had "a profound influence upon lawyers and judges, especially mid- to late-career baby boomers like myself," Meyer argued recently in the ABA Journal.

When it comes to the most cited popular artists, Dylan blows the rest out of the water. He's by far more popular, id.- and ibid.-wise, than The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Springsteen, according to Alex Long, a law professor at the University of Tennessee. In 2011, Professor Long identified Dylan as the law's favorite artist, and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as the law's most cited song.

One line in particular shows up in judicial opinions over and over: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Dylan's lyrics show up so often, Professor Meyer contends, because they "provide propositional authority and embody understandings of shared fundamental legal or cultural truths." Thus, Chief Justice Roberts can turn to Dylan to expound on standing, Scalia could wield him to attack a majority opinion, the California Court of Appeals can reference him to explain the context of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As such, Dylan is "our most influential pop cultural voice," especially in the law, Mayer says, adhering "to our collective lawyer-imaginations in a way so many marvelous troubadours of the '60s... do not."

Rephrasing it idiomatically, as I pretend that Dylan might do, he is located just a little north of Shakespeare on some unofficial judicial map, and perhaps just a dab south of the Bible.

Meyer proposes several reasons for this. First, the role of music as "the dominant art form" when Boomers came of age. Second, Dylan's ability to convey "complex meanings embedded deep within the consciousness of his times." There's also the fact that Dylan was prolific; there are plenty of quotes to choose from.

Dylan's typical themes also resonate with the legal-minded. "Dylan's material was ultimately about justice," Meyer argues. "About the limitations of the law."

Lawyers love Dylan, I think, because his voice and his story songs speak so directly to parts of ourselves that are typically discounted in our professional lives -- especially in lawyers' careful, meticulous professional language, and in our text-based grammatically correct forms of written expression. He reminds us that the creative, the musical and the intuitive are not lost inside of us in our practices.

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