Talk about a day late and a dollar short.
I totally missed the boat on the whole Joni Mitchell/Bob Dylan kerfuffle.
To be honest, I didn’t really have anything interesting to say about it last weekend (although I enjoyed reading other’s opinions on the intertubes).
I mean, dude, of course Dylan has been lifting lines and melodies since the beginning of his career. He’s inserted lines from various movies and books, from Ovid, and even from an obscure 1990s Japanese novel. Standard blues and folk phrases and melodies can be heard on many of his albums. Oh, Dylan is a shameless thief no doubt. But really, this is nothing shocking. Hell he even called one of albums “Love and Theft.” In quotation marks.
I honestly don't understand Mitchell’s beef, but my guess is that it has nothing to do with Dyaln’s musical and literary larceny.
The bru-ha-ha did get me thinking broadly about the nature of plagiarism in regard to popular music. Here’s a tradition that once thrived on appropriation, borrowing, thieving, and recontextualizing.
Once upon a time, folk and blues artists traded and collected riffs, melodies, and phrases like baseball cards—gonna dust my broom—down at the crossroads—Casey Jones ridin’ the rails—12 bar blues—let that boy boogie-woogie. This was called folk music after all. Music that belonged to the people.
But now? Whose songs are these anyway? The artists? The people (folk)? The record companies? Multi-national conglomerates?
When recorded folk and blues music became big business during the middle of the 20th century, artists and recording companies were obviously looking to cash in—there was a change in “accepted practices” and suddenly blues and folk music copyrights were tightened--"You can't have that riff man, it's my riff, it's CBS's riff, it's private property man!" It wasn’t music of the folk any longer—the music became a commodity and songs became property. Folk music meets the free market.
Of course, this new dynamic doesn’t reflect people’s real relationship to music. People and artists would continue to react to, to be influenced by, and to build upon the music they were hearing.
So, what do we mean by musical plagiarism?
I mean, was Woody Guthrie plagiarizing the Carter Family when he appropriated the melody from “This World’s on Fire” (also their “You Are My Sunshine”) for “This Land is Your Land”?
This is certainly muddy water, and I don’t have any answers.
However, it might be interesting to take a look at a couple of popular instances of “musical plagiarism.” Some are obvious hack-jobs and rip-offs, while others…man, I’m really not sure.
What do you think?
- All Day and All of the Night—The Kinks (1964)—Ray Davies
- Hello, I Love You—The Doors (written 1965, recorded 1968)—Jim Morrison
Ray Davies unsuccessfully sued The Doors for this one. Although “Hello, I Love You” was released on The Doors’ 1968 album Waiting For The Sun, it was originally written by Morrison in 1965—a year after “All Day and All of the Night” was popular. Interestingly, in Electra’s initial press release for The Doors upon their 1965 signing Jim Morrison listed The Kinks as one of his favorite bands. Apparently Ray Davies is still pissed.In an unrelated note the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles is also apparently still pissed over the The Doors’ “Oedipal Section” in “The End.” Says Sophocles: “Morrison gives new meaning to the term ‘motherfucker.’”
- He's So Fine—The Chiffons (1962)—Roland Mack
- My Sweet Lord—George Harrison (1970)—George Harrison
This famous plagiarism lawsuit ruled against the former Beatle in favor of Bright Tunes, the company that owned “He’s So Fine.” The judge called it a case of “subconscious plagiarism.” Harrison ultimately bought the Bright Tunes Company. Meanwhile the Vishnu is just happy to have the mantra Hare Krishna associated with a cool song rather than with “those weirdoes at the airport.”
- I Want a New Drug—Huey Lewis and the News (1984)—Huey Lewis
- Ghostbusters Theme—Ray Parker Jr. (1984)—Ray Parker Jr.
A musician ripping off Huey Lewis is like a director ripping off Uwe Boll. Very pathetic. But Huey Lewis received a nice (undisclosed) settlement from Ray Parker Jr.—until he blabbed about it to VH1, and Ray Parker Jr. countersued.Whole lot of suing for two completely stupid songs.
Too bad both songs are ultimately indebted to M’s “Pop Muzik” released in 1979.
- Run Through the Jungle—Creedence Clearwater Reival (1969)—John Fogerty
- The Old Man Down the Road—John Fogerty (1985)—John Fogerty
- Love is a Wonderful Thing—The Isley Brothers (written 1964, released 1966)—Ronald and Ernie Isley
- Love is a Wonderful Thing—Michael Bolton (1991)—Michael Bolton & Andrew Goldmark
This suit resulted in the largest settlement ever for a musical copyright infringement—hack singer Michael Bolton was required to pay over $5 million dollars to the Isleys. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling had something to do with the fact that Bolton's music sucks donkey balls coupled with his ruining forever Percey Sledge's “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Otis Redding's “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
I like to think the judge was simply offended by Bolton's existence. I like to think of the ruling as reparations for crimes against rock. Of course, I also like to think that there is a special place in hell for Michael Bolton and every single one of his lame-ass fans.
- Ice, Ice Baby—Vanilla Ice (1989)—Douchie Van Periwinkle or whatever his dumb name is.
- Under Pressure (1981)—Queen & David Bowie
Vanilla Ice sampled the classic Queen/David Bowie bass line and tried to pass it off as his. He ultimately paid Queen and Bowie an undisclosed sum of money. The outrage from this song probably has more to do with the fact that Vanilla Ice is a no-talent ass-clown than for his act of musical sampling.
And speaking of sampling…
As we wade deeper into the 21st century, thanks to technology, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way toward a time when it's the music that's important--not the artist or the company. For over twenty years, DJs have been sampling riffs and grooves from recordings to form new music. Is sampling musical plagiarism?
With computer software making it easier for anyone to become a creative DJ and lift pieces of copyrighted music, coupled with the continuing collapse of the corporate music industry, we seem to be heading back to an era when musical piracy was valued and encouraged. In both the academic and business world there has been vigorous debate about whether this is all right or wrong—the ethics of free information and access to music. Certainly this is a worthy debate.
But we should also frame this discusstion within the nature of artistic context. I ask again, whose music is this anyway? Is there really a difference between what Woody Guthrie did with the Cater Family song and what Jim Morrison did with the Kinks song? Or what DJs and hip-hop artists do with that sample from the old record?
Is an act like Girl Talk just a clever thief, or is he contributing something of value? Where is music going in an age when more and more people can manipulate and recontexualize the music on their hard drives? Are we criminals or artists? Is there even a difference anymore?
Girl Talk's "Play Your Part (pt. 1)From Girl Talk's album "Feed the Animals" 2008--Illegal Art