Perhaps best known for his extensive writing on Bob Dylan, Clinton Heylin has been called “a formidable rock historian” (The Australian), “Arguable the world’s greatest rock biographer” (The Irish Independent), and “One of music writing’s foremost practitioners” (Irish Examiner). His work also includes biographies on Van Morrison and Sandy Denny in addition to numerous other books and articles, greatly enhancing the genre of music history. Today, Heylin is sharing with youbloom part one of his recent piece on song-snatching. Stay tuned for part two which will be appearing here on Tuesday!
‘Twas Paul McCartney, one of the most original songwriters, who told Guitar World, ‘What do they say? A good artist borrows, a great artist steals … That makes the Beatles great artists, because we stole a lot of stuff.’ The trick is disguising the debt, or stealing from the public domain, as Macca did with ‘Golden Slumbers’, a Thomas Dekker poem. Because as John Perry, Only Ones guitarist and (uncredited) author of the ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ riff, once wrote: ‘“Ripping off” is a matter of context. Everyone steals; it’s not what you nick, but the way that you nick it.’
Even the Eurovision Song Contest – that black hole of originality – has been tainted by accusations of plagiarism. The year that ‘Congratulations’ – the most famous English non-winner – lost out to Spanish song ‘La La La’, the triumphant Spaniards were immediately sued for patently nicking the melody of The Kinks’ ‘Death of A Clown’.
Since the beginning of 4/4 time, songwriters have been borrowing, snatching or plain stealing from songs of yesteryear. So here is my personal list of favourite beg, steal and borrowings, beginning a hundred years ago with W.C. Handy, a man with two statues erected to him, and a park named after him, the self-styled ‘Father of The Blues’.
1. St Louis Blues.
Handy’s most famous, and lucrative, song was once the second most valuable copyright in popular song, but even he admitted that ‘the twelve-bar, three-line form … with its three-chord basic harmonic structure . . . was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted class.’
In fact, the lyrics were little more than a clever composite of stray couplets heard in clubs of Memphis and the streets of St Louis (hence the song’s title). As for the music, jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton fired the first salvo at Handy’s lilywhite reputation in a 1938 Downbeat article, suggesting, ‘Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created. [Rather,] he has taken advantage of some unprotected material . . . [because of] a greed for false reputation.’
Handy’s printed retort was that at least he ‘had vision enough to copyright and publish all the music I wrote, so I don’t have to go around saying I made up this piece and that piece in such and such a year … Nobody has swiped anything from me.’ But as bluesman T-Bone Walker once said of Handy’s famous composite composition, ‘It’s a pretty tune, and it has kind of a bluesy tone, but it’s not the blues. You can’t dress up the blues.’
2. Hound Dog
‘Hound Dog’ provided sophomore songsmiths Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber with a crash-course in r&b publishing. No sooner had they written the r&b standard, in 1952, it was copyrighted to Don Robey, who owned Peacock Records and Big Mama Thornton who recorded it. The culprit was Johnny Otis, to whom Leiber-Stoller had contracted their songs hoping to break into the industry. Giving him a third of the publishing on any songs he got recorded, they did not allow him to assign their songs to others.
As Stoller later told their biographer, ‘’The reality of the cold-blooded music business was something else. Later, we learned that Johnny Otis [had] put his name on the song as a composer and indicated to Don Robey, the label owner, that he, Johnny, had power of attorney to sign for us as well . . . We got an attorney and a new contract from Robey … The song hit the R&B charts, but [Robey’s] check bounced.’
Otis insisted to his dying day he rewrote the words, which originally ‘had lyrics about knives and scars, all negative stereotypes . . . It was a legal swindle and I got beat out of it.’ He even took the pair to court when Elvis covered it, having previously signed a release renouncing all claims to the song in exchange for $750. His claim was roundly dismissed, the New York federal judge branding him ‘unworthy of belief’ – courtspeak for a hound dog.
3. Blowin’ In The Wind
Like Shakespeare before him, the first time Dylan achieved public notoriety was as a ‘thief of thoughts’ in an October 1963 Newsweek feature that suggested there was a ‘rumor circulating that Dylan did not write “Blowing In The Wind,” that it was written by a Millburn (N.J.) high school student named Lorre Wyatt, who sold it to the singer . . . Wyatt denies authorship, but several Millburn students claim they heard the song from Wyatt before Dylan ever sang it.’
Dylan’s naive decision to publish the song in a mimeographed folkzine, Broadside, a full year before he released it gave Wyatt the opportunity to claim it for his own. A New Jersey high-school student and a member of The Millburnaires, a cheesy folk trio in the Kingston rio tradition, Wyatt played it to his band in October 1962, nine whole months before Peter Paul & Mary made it a million-seller.
When asked where he got it from, Wyatt claimed to have written it. The other band members insisted they perform it at a high school performance where it was an immediate sensation, and all too soon Wyatt found himself telling tall-tales for a living. By September 1963, a female researcher from Newsweek was calling Wyatt persistently. Andrea Svedburg was researching a premeditated hatchet-job on the protest singer, ‘revealing’ his real name and middle-class Mid-west upbringing.
Surprisingly, Dylan did not sue the highly influential weekly. But it would take Wyatt until 1974 to come clean, and another forty years before he made a joint album with Pete Seeger, who had spotted Dylan’s true source the very night he first performed it: ‘No More Auction Block’, a traditional anti-slavery song. Dylan might still have been sued for the song had he not wisely dropped the song’s fourth verse, a straight lift from Jack Rhodes’s ‘Satisfied Mind’, a song owned by the notoriously litigious Porter Wagoner.
4. House of The Rising Sun
If Dylan claimed his recasting of ‘No More Auction Block’ for his own he failed to copyright his arrangement (actually Dave Van Ronk’s) of 19th century folksong ‘House of the Rising Sun’, recorded it for his first album. This left The Animals free and clear to claim the electric arrangement they based on his as their own.
In fact, only the Animals organist Alan Price put his name to ‘their’ arrangement, prompting singer Eric Burdon to write, ‘With the stroke of a pen, the rest of The Animals were screwed. Ripped off from the get-go – from inside.’ The song went to number one both sides of the Atlantic, and Price was suddenly a very wealthy you man; and Dylan saw the light electric.
If Dylan was unfazed, another American folk doyen was incensed to find he was entitled to nothing. Alan Lomax was the son of John Lomax, whose first collection of Cowboy Songs was largely plagiarized from another collector. Both subsequently used Congress funds to collect folksongs they duly copyrighted to themselves – including Leadbelly’s entire repertoire.
In 1960’s Folk Songs of North America, Alan claimed he found ‘Rising Sun’ first, taking it ‘down in 1937 from . . . a pretty, yellow-headed miner’s daughter in Middlesborough, Kentucky, subsequently adapting it to the form … popularized by Josh White.’ He did nothing of the sort. White learnt the song from ‘a white hillbilly singer in North Carolina’.
White’s minor-key variant was the one Van Ronk, Dylan and The Animals appropriated. But his variant was hardly the first recorded. Versions released by Clarence Ashley and Roy Acuff both predate White’s, and Lomax’s. As does a version by The Callahan Brothers recorded in April 1935 as ‘Rounder’s Luck’.
Try as he might, there was no way Lomax Junior could cut himself a slice of a song to which he did not contribute a single note or word, just because he had the ‘foresight’ to record three versions of it after it had already been collected by three other folklorists and after it was released commercially no less than three times.
5. Dazed & Confused.
The idea for Led Zeppelin was one Jimmy Page had been carrying around for years. In fact, he almost formed such a band with John Entwistle and Keith Moon, back in 1966. The problem was not musicianship, but original material. He was not a natural songwriter. Yet when the first Led Zeppelin album appeared there were all these songs credited to Page in part or all, including compositions by folkie Anne Borden and bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, all still alive, all recopyrighted to Page et al.
His most brazen acquisition, though, was called ‘Dazed & Confused’, a song he had learnt two years earlier from a Jake Holmes album and centrepiece of early Zep performances. The one time he was asked on the record about the song he wiggled like a catfish on a fishing-line, ‘I’d rather not get into it because I don’t know all the circumstances. What’s he got, the riff or whatever? Because Robert wrote some of the lyrics for that on the album . . . We extended it from one that we were playing with The Yardbirds. I haven’t heard Jake Holmes.’
Actually, Plant hadn’t written a single word of the song, and if he had, he wasn’t credited. Only Page was. As for never hearing Jake Holmes, Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty not only recalled Jake Holmes supporting The Yardbirds at a New York show in August 1967 but vividly remembers them going to a record shop the next day to buy Holmes’s album, The Above Ground Sound, having collectively ‘decided to do a version … We worked it out together with Jimmy contributing the guitar riffs in the middle.’
Holmes, for reasons unknown, took until 2010 to make it a legal matter but when he did, Page didn’t have a leg to stand on. But Page could not bring himself to admit ‘Dazed And Confused’ was not really his. And so as a solution to the suit, when the version from Zeppelin’s one-off 2007 reunion at the O2 Arena was released in 2012 it was credited to ‘Page, inspired by Jake Holmes’ – a form of credit not recognized by any copyright law, but which at least admitted Page had heard Jake Holmes’ psychedelic original.