In folk music, it’s expected that songs get retreaded in all kinds of ways. Melodies get recycled with different lyrics, and similar bits of lyrics find their way into a host of different tunes. How many tunes share “six white horses in a line” or “dig my grave with a silver spade” and so on? When we own songs together, it’s all good.
Woody Guthrie was a guy who freely applied new lyrics to melodies that have been kicking around for a long time. The first example that comes to mind is Tom Joad. It shares a melody with John Hardy. One song is about the Steinbeck character and the other is about an outlaw. Another example I quite like is Grand Coulee Dam, which shares a melody with Wabash Cannonball. One song is about damming a wild river to provide electricity to the Pacific Northwest and the other is about the legendary train that takes hobos to a better life over yonder (maybe that’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain?). Grand Coulee Dam has some great lyrics – In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray, men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave – though she tore their boats to splinters, she gave men dreams to dream of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasteful stream. Of course, today we see all kinds of problems with damming our wild rivers, but for now let’s keep this in the context of the times.
And here’s Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys
In my mind, both are equally legitimate tunes that share the same melody.
Today, this can’t happen without a lawsuit, and in the pop music world there have been loads of them. You stole my tune! Everybody wants to be original, but at the same time, everybody shares the same two or three or four chords. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain illustrate this beautifully with their piece, Fly Me off the Handel…
More examples? Think about how many tunes you know that are really some version of the shave and a hair-cut – two bits rhythm we usually refer to as the Bo Diddley rhythm?
So next time you hear about some mega-pop star suing another for ripping off a lick, consider that there may be dozens of tunes going back decades that use the very same melodies, rhythms, harmonies and so on. As someone who is immersed in various folk music traditions I say don’t sweat it. My Sweet Lord and He’s so Fine may share a melody, but in feel and spirit and content they’re miles apart.