At my son’s fourth birthday party, a classmate presented him with a toy recycling truck. Atop it was a button that, when pushed, uncorked a familiar tune with the words: “To the dump, to the dump, to the dump dump dump!” An adult nearby heard the melody and said, “Hey — that’s the ‘Lone Ranger’ theme song.”
Well, yes and no. It is indeed the fanfare to the famed 1950s TV series. But before that it was something even more venerable — the William Tell Overture, by a 19th-century Italian composer named Gioachino Rossini.
So goes the story of modern music. A century of near-continuous recording, packaging, repackaging, riffing and — more recently — the technical ability for anyone to create cultural collage and sample all facets of creative expression, has turned our musical reservoir into a collection of quotations. Millions of snippets, words and music sit at the ready, waiting to be recruited into the service of something new.
Or, occasionally, retooled into something legally actionable.
On Monday, a federal jury decided unanimously that pop star Katy Perry and her record label had, with her song “Dark Horse,” copied a 2009 Christian rap song called “Joyful Noise” released by an artist named Marcus Gray.
Perry’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, had taken issue with this line of thinking, saying that “they’re trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone.”
Legal arguments aside, those basic building blocks — the “alphabet of music” — are responsible for producing huge chunks of the American songbook in ways far more fundamental than most listeners realize.
The likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones built their repertoires by plundering traditional Delta Blues. Bob Dylan made his name remixing the folk canon in innovative ways; “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” for instance, is a direct descendant of a centuries-old British ballad called “Lord Randall.” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” with its “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” traces back straight through American mountain folklore to British tradition.
Think you’re familiar with the 1970 Steve Miller Band classic “The Joker” and its lyrics, “You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see/I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree”? North Carolinian Charlie Poole, one of America’s seminal early country musicians, recorded a jaunty song in 1930 called “If the River Was Whiskey,” which included this line:
“I was born in Alabama, raised in Tennessee,
if you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake on my tree.”
This stuff can be revelatory for so many music listeners because it operates under the radar. It’s our own musical history, hiding in plain sight, an ocean of raw material awaiting some fresh genius glue to bind it into something new.
This was true at least as far back as the second half of the 19th century.
By then, according to the eccentric roots-music pioneer Harry Smith, enough folk lyrics were kicking around the republic, cross-pollinating between black and white musicians, to provide fodder for thousands of still-to-be-written songs — what the critic Greil Marcus calls “an almost infinite repertory of performances.” So many tales of American experience emerged from that era and its critical mass of storytelling fragments.
Now, the fragmentation has gone global. The character of this new disapora, though, is different. It now includes high-powered marketing, mass intellectual-property theft and economic forces that dwarf — sometimes steamroll — the local and regional traditions that spread folk music around in the 1800s.
Today, the practice of harvesting musical and lyrical snippets is flourishing — most creatively, perhaps, in hip-hop and dance music, where readily accessible technology encourages sampling for remixes, remakes, dance mixes and party mixes.
But what to one artist is a nod or tribute can, to another, be theft. And when lyricists and musicians begin drawing not from tradition but from fellow modern, revenue-conscious entertainers, the results get more contentious.
In 1976, former Beatle George Harrison was ordered to pay damages of nearly $1.6 million after a court ruled that his song “My Sweet Lord” had copied musical pieces of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” written by Ronnie Mack. The battle went on for years and the damages were later reduced.
In 2015, songwriter Sam Smith agreed to share the royalties for his song “Stay With Me” with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, whose 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down” had melodies similar enough to also give Petty and Lynne co-writing credits.
The list of disputes based on musical similarity goes on: Radiohead (“Creep,” 1992) and Lana Del Ray (“Get Free,” 2017); Huey Lewis and the News (“I Want a New Drug,” 1984) and Ray Parker Jr. (“Ghostbusters,” 1984). And many more.
Advertisers recognize the power of the American songbook, too. “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” appropriated by Aaron Copland after being recorded in the field by musicologist Alan Lomax through the fiddler W.H. Stepp, showed up in a recent ad from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The old tune “Turkey in the Straw” was used in the 1970s and 1980s as an ad for Murphy’s Oil Soap.
And several Decembers ago, when I sang “Jingle Bells,” my young son objected. “That’s not a Christmas song,” he said indignantly. “That’s Elmo’s song from the end of his show.” And so it was. Who’s to say I’m any more right than he is?
The wholesale expropriation of music on such a large scale is unprecedented and can be roundly blamed on — or credited to — two things: technology and globalization.
It has produced some genuinely odd mashups. I have found “Edelweiss,” a show tune, cast as a cowboy song; Wham’s elegiac “Careless Whisper” branded as perfect driving music; and Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime classic “The Entertainer” pressed into service as a cell-phone ringtone in Islamabad, Pakistan, by a man who didn’t know it but liked it better than the built-in ring.
If the recent past is any hint, cultural context will matter less and less.
Consider what happened to my wife in China a few years back. She was driving around Beijing with a twentysomething Chinese real-estate agent named Kimberly Teng when they passed a certain roast-chicken restaurant named after a certain white-bearded Southern singer known for certain pop-country standards such as “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.”
“Do you know of Kenny Rogers?” Teng asked reverently. Then an earnest, serious look came over her face. “He sings many ancient and beautiful love songs.”
A good chunk of our global culture — misquoted, revered, decontextualized and misquoted again, then served up for an entirely new audience — is, for better or worse, now in the hands of a generation of Kimberly Tengs in many lands. Movies, videogames and music are their currency, streamed into the devices in their pockets, purses and packs.
It can bind itself to local traditions and flourish, growing into something fresh and exciting. Or, commoditized to the nth degree, it could become the equivalent of putting “Careless Whisper” on a road-trip playlist — something decontextualized and irrelevant to anyone’s life experience anywhere. To the dump indeed.