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How Bob Dylan Shapes the Law

Does it ever seem that the answer to a legal problem is blowin' in the wind? Have you ever wondered how many roads you must walk down before you can call yourself a lawyer? Do you believe that Ruben Carter was falsely tried?

If so, you are not alone. An Oklahoma law professor's research on the use of song lyrics in legal writing found that the popular artist whose lyrics are most often cited in legal journals and judicial opinions is Bob Dylan, followed in rank by The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and R.E.M.

The professor, Alex B. Long of Oklahoma City University School of Law, recently published his findings in an article, [Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misues of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing. He writes that one Dylan lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," has virtually become boilerplate in California appellate decisions discussing the need for expert testimony.

But one striking feature of the top-10 list, Long writes, is the absence of artists of color and the inclusion of just one woman. One portent of a shift in this trend is the increasing tendency of courts to cite hip-hop lyrics, he says. As an example, he offers a 2005 decision in which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was compelled to explain the difference between a "hoe" and a "ho." In so doing, it referenced the lyrics of rapper Ludacris, "You doin' ho activities with ho tendencies."

You will find an abundance of folk lyrics cited in legal writing, but not as many drawn from country or alternative music, Long says. Something else you'll find in abundance is the metaphor, sometimes mangled, sometimes not. There is the 5th Circuit case in which a man carrying cocaine on a bus was confronted with a drug-sniffing dog. Wrote the court:

[He] was thus forced to ask himself what The Clash famously asked two decades ago: "Should I stay or should I go now?"

And then there is this somewhat mangled example from an unpublished federal district court opinion:

The Beatles once sang about the long and winding road. This 1992 case has definitely walked down it, but at the ned of the day, the plaintiffs and their counsel were singing the Pink Floyd anthem "Another Brick in the Wall" after consistently banging their collective heads against a popular procedural wall -- Northern District of Illinois Local Rule 12 governing the briefing and submission of summary judgment motions.

Long concludes his review of lyrics in law with this advice:

There are most definitely risks in trying to work popular music lyrics into legal writing, but occasionally the attempt pays off in the form of more interesting and persuasive writing. So, be careful, but keep on rockin’ in the free world.

[Via The Volokh Conspiracy.]

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 19, 2006 at 03:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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