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Plagiarism vs Folk Music

I read today that popular band Guns N’ Roses is being sued for a million bucks by a fellow who makes ambient electronica named Ulrich Schnauss. If I understand correctly, the claim is about unauthorized sampling. I suppose that’s a little bit different than using the same melody, but then sampling is kind of like collage for musicians – snip a piece here, glue a piece there. The business of lawsuits over plagiarism is pretty common. After all, there is a lot of dough involved in the popular music business.

Many people of my generation will remember the fuss when George Harrison was successfully sued for turning He’s so Fine by the Chiffons into My Sweet Lord. There are plenty of examples, many of which were settled out of court.

There was a time when reusing melodies wasn’t plagiarism. I use a short form for that: folk music. The idea with folk music is that we own the song together as a community and we can use it and reuse it and change it about all we like. Let’s look at an example. Wabash Cannonball vs Grand Coulee Dam. Anyone who listens to the two songs would agree they share a melody, but it doesn’t really matter. They just share a melody, that’s all. And when Woody sings: In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windy spray, men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave, nobody is thinking of that hobo train, the Wabash Cannonball, taking men of the traveling nation to a better place.

Here’s Woody’s son, Arlo, singing Grand Coulee Dam.
And here’s Boxcar Willie singing Wabash Cannonball

Melodies are borrowed and reused and we shouldn’t be surprised. Consider the structure of western music based around a 7 note diatonic scale – and most popular music using 2,3, maybe 4 chords – how many possibilities are there?

Lyrics are borrowed and reused too. There are stories that carry on through folk music with so many interpretations – Big stories that last. John Henry. Stackolee. Delia, Frankie and Johnnie

We see songs that change as they cross genres. They adapt.

So, can you own a song? What makes it yours? What does writing a song really mean? Tough questions. Today we have sampling, and in a way that highlights the issue, because with sampling you can take a chunk of a recording, not just a melody or a lyric or a song family and move it lock, stock and barrel to a different context. In a way context changes everything, even though you can identify the original recording in some samples.

Your thoughts?

7 Comments

  1. During Smokey Robinson’s recent appearance on Live from Daryl’s House, he flatly states that he does not care if anyone samples music he has written. They can sample it all they want. He is flattered.

    Which brings up the obvious question. Does he draw the line anywhere? If he does not draw the line anywhere, then his music has crossed the line into the public domain.

    I admired the sentiment anyway.

  2. Wandering Coyote

    Here is an example of what I was talking about, using Nightwish.

    This their song “Amaranth.” You don’t have to listen to the whole thing, just past the 1st chorus, so you get the picture for the next clip.

    Now, here is a blatant stealing by some techno/pop-ish group, who incidentally, are not only stealing from Amaranth, but also from lyrics by Alice Cooper (shocking!):

    As you can see by the comments under the video, lots of people are not happy about it.

    This I don’t think is right – if Tuomas Holopainen, the composer & lyricist for Nightwish, WASN’T notified or if he hadn’t given his permission in advance.

    I’m in agreement with Four Dinners. They should have just asked the guy.

  3. Anthony candy

    I just mentioned that George Harrison thing with the song in my comments. What a coincidence!

  4. I’m baffled why Guns n Roses didn’t just check with the guy. He’d have probably been cool with – even if he wanted a cut, after all it’s his.

    Nowt wrong with using others talent to enhance your song but at least have the courtesy to ask ’em first. Some might not even want a cut they’d just be chuffed someone more famous liked their stuff.

  5. Wandering Coyote

    This has cropped up recently in a few forms in the metal world. In those cases, they are original songs by a specific writer getting swiped and used in a different genre (metal songs being turned into techo or pop). And I’m not talking about covers here, either. I hate to see it because there are so many idiots out there who wouldn’t have a clue where the original came from. But, I think as long as the original artist is cool with it and gets his royalties and there are no legal issues, then it’s between the two artists.

    I think folk is a bit different; it’s hard to “own” something with a tradition behind it. And folk is kind of defined by it’s being “owned” by the people, at least according to some.

    • If we took multi-national record companies out of the picture – in other words, if it wasn’t all about marketing and scooping as much cash as possible, maybe we wouldn’t see it as so different.

      What do we mean by original? If I came down from a different planet and looked at any one genre of Western music, particularly the ones that use simple structures, I might just think that everything within the genre is similar. Different melodies maybe. Different lyrics – but maybe similar types of lyrics. Similar harmonies. Similar structures, similar flavour, and so on.

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