Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stealin', Stealin': Blues, Jazz, and Reggae

I was half-hearing some other car's radio while waiting in the ferry boat line recently and thought I was listening to one of those obscure Reggae albums I'd been touting a few weeks back. Then I realized I was actually hearing Los Lobos play and sing their excellent tune "A Matter of Time." This unlikely confluence of melodies and arrangements got me to thinking about borrowing in the arts versus outright theft, from the parodies of Pope and maybe Byron, to Joyce building Ulysses on the plot of The Odyssey; from the Broadway musical On the Town too quickly recycled as Hit the Deck, to Spartacus battling back as Gladiator; from Picasso incessantly reworking Velasquez and Goya, to Warhol and Lichtenstein craftily copying comics and Pop culture.

Versions of such impoverished copycatting came at us from all directions as the twentieth century clumped along, Hot wars or Cold (or undeclared), exploration turned exploitation, advertising morphed into franchising, Gehrig and DiMaggio traded for bobbleheads with agents, statesmen replaced by corporate lobbyists, your neighborhood bank become a global vault of greed (was crazy Ezra Pound right about the immoral influence of usury all along?), giants of the past diminished by Post-Modernist irony (and Right Wing revisionism), politricksters of the present reduced by their own actions to the height of stupidity.

But I'm supposed to be talking about the arts. So think of Gershwin versus Connick. (Better to compare him with composer/player George than with standard-setting vocalist Frank.) Consider either Hepburn yielding her role to, say, Lindsay Lohan; or Tarantino lionized rather than Hawks or Hitchcock. Ella gone GaGa. Kenny G more popular than Charlie P. If that's too passe, then the Marsalis clan replacing those Jones boys, Elvin and Thad and Hank. Even standing on the shoulders of past heroes, the current stars don't really measure up.

But let's examine some comparisons in more depth. I mentioned Pound. Well, T.S. Eliot famously dedicated the Ezra-edited version of The Waste Land to him, thanking Pound as "il miglior fabbro," which loosely translates to "the better fabricator" or "craftsman," but some said in slang it really meant "the better thief." (Early drafts released in the Seventies revealed that Eliot was even more of a cad and bigot than previously known; Pound had cut the poem by half.) The Waste Land became hugely popular and a template for the century's literature, suggesting that outright quotations, lines borrowed from other authors but deftly rewritten, not-very-subtle mockery and put-downs of others (women, Jews, the working class maybe) were all now fair game in serious writing.

Joyce agreed, apparently. At least, his big novels are rich with parodies of famous authors, fiction tropes and writing styles, ad slogans and political speeches and what-you-will. (The earlier Will indulged in some of the same, three hundred years before.) Around 1941, English poet Henry Reed (whose lovely and comical "Naming of Parts" and the others in his "Lessons of the War" group are often considered the best poems to come out of World War II) wrote the most famous parody poem of the century, titled "Chard Whitlow," gently mocking Eliot's later, more philosophical style. Reed's poem opens drolly: "As we get older we do not get any younger./ Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,/ And this time last year I was fifty-four,/ And this time next year I shall be sixty-two." (Eliot later declared that Reed's poem sounded more like Eliot than he did himself!)

I may have subconsciously drawn on Reed's example--in the mid-Sixties he was my mentor in poetry at the University of Washington and also godfather to my daughter--when several years later I became the producer and chief writer for the regionally famous series of Rainier Beer ads, especially the radio spots (my personal pride and joy), less familiar to beer fans because Rainier booked them only on smaller-market stations. (The Rainier ad campaigns ran from 1972 until the late Eighties, and were hugely popular, admired for being creative and amusing, unique at the time, and cheaply produced.)

Our modus operandi for Rainier was a mix of parody and homage: revisiting Casablanca and Merrill Lynch and Archie Bunker, Rose Marie and The Waltons and 20-Mule Team Borax, and much more (on television); plus Elvis and DEVO, Tom Waits and Ray Charles, the Johnny Burnette Trio and the Supremes, among a score of other radio spots. My own forte was writing a witty, beer-related storyline paralleling the original song and using its rhythm; and then the musicians could work out a tune reminiscent of that same original but not copying it note for note. For better or worse, we got away with such careful mockery--some would say theft--for a dozen years!

But not long after that, the rules governing parody and pastiche and copyright got a whole lot stricter. There were some new wrinkles still to come... but first we need to rewind to 1902 or so.

Black musician W.C. Handy heard some guy on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi, singing an eerie but catchy number and playing it on his guitar using a piece of metal; Handy made a mental note. A few years later he recreated that melody for use in a political campaign, and then someone else added lyrics, and Handy copyrighted it as "The Memphis Blues," the first Blues tune to be acknowledged as such.

Imitation being the sincerest form of cashing in on another's success, this quickly led to many more Bluesish numbers, and after that to the City Blues singers named Smith (Mamie and Clara and Bessie and maybe more), and then to the whole era of Country Blues performers, from the many talented Johnsons to the prolific and genre-straddling players with names like Broonzy and Wheatstraw, Patton and McTell. They were all "Singin' the Blues," but often because that's what the White record-label folks requested. The adaptable Black entertainers searched their memories for lyrics and general storylines, juggled songs they'd heard others sing, et voila, presto, another remarkable, "historically important" 12-bar Blues number waxed--whereas in truth they were all borrowing from a common pool of phrases and from each other. The Blues back then was pretty much a collective endeavor.

Jazz developed gradually, often utilizing some Blues structure or other, and new bandleaders like Duke Ellington were at first happy to use common tunes and lines. But Duke had other fish to fry, determined to be recognized not only as a premier Black entertainer but as a serious composer, using the musicians and material he had at hand. Soon he wrote the musically elaborate "Black and Tan Fantasie" and chose to end it with a passage from Chopin's Funeral March--no copyright to worry about, and an amusing but pertinent musical quote. And Duke did this trick from time to time thereafter, reworking tunes like "Tiger Rag" and "Old Man River" and claiming them as Ellington compositions. He also became known for taking a few notes one of his Ellingtonians had played and turning those into a whole new number, with copyright ungenerously assigned to the leader only. (Was it theft or was it Memorex?)

Nor was he the only borrower. Other bandleaders and arrangers casually lifted background riffs from Basie or Henderson and turned them into new foreground flagwavers benefitting, say, Goodman or Miller. Nor was it only Whites stealing from Blacks. Pres learned from Frankie Trumbauer, and Tommy Dorsey was a favorite of Black brass, trombonists and otherwise. The Big Bands begged, stole, or borrowed from one another routinely--whether ideas or charts--till popular and ubiquitous numbers like "King Porter Stomp" and Duke's "Mood Indigo" began to seem as familiar as Public Domain folk tunes.

The BeBop cats showed their instrumental mastery by zipping through barrages of 8th, 16th, even 32nd notes, and finding new passing chords and altered harmonies in the process. But where did all their hip tunes come from? From rewrites on the changes--and sometimes a quick snippet of tune--of various malleable melodies. Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" had already yielded Ellington's "Cotton Tail"; now Gillespie ("Salt Peanuts"), Monk ("Rhythm-a-ning"), and Charlie Parker ("Anthro- pology," "Moose the Mooche," and other head-arrangement numbers) raided it too. "Ornithology" came from "How High the Moon," "Ko Ko" from "Cherokee," and "Oh Lady Be Good" (Gershwin again) was prologue to Monk's somewhat obscure number "Hackensack." Dizzy even managed to warp the corny warhorse "Whispering" into "Groovin' High." Clearly the "Blue Skies" were unlimited once Monk found "In Walked Bud" drifting there.

It got so confused that the a&r guys or label owners made a point at recording sessions of listening hard to be sure the old standards were unrecognizable, carefully retitled, escaping pesky royalties. Hard Bop and Cool and Free Jazz and such all made less use of Bop's tricky alterations, relying more on the Blues, the feel of Gospel and Soul, and original compositions. And today there are still clever rewrites being copyrighted in Jazz and Pop, but so long as not blatantly obvious, it's evidently become an acceptable practice--with the occasional odd exception like George Harrison getting sued for "My Sweet Lord," deemed too close to "He's So Fine"...

And that quick dash through a century of music brings us to the newest versions of borrowing--i.e., Hip-Hop sampling, and that thieving magpie called Reggae. Rappers and deejays of the Seventies and Eighties brazenly stole a few notes or a brief turnaround from hits by James Brown or Sly Stone or Horace Silver, and casually dropped them into their own jagged, chanted productions. It seemed harmless and amusing at first, but the record companies and sampled artists began objecting and consulting copyright attorneys--and suddenly rappers had to state the source and pay a royalty for any borrowed chunk. (It's usually a mistake to call in the lawyers. During that same stretch of time, the courts were challenged by lawsuits objecting to parodies of established scenes and familiar characters, even to caricatures of the physiognamies of actors and celebrities. In no time at all, parodies and pastiches and homages were squeezed hard and usually ruled off-limits unless, again, royalties were paid.)

So the law has been laid down. But down in Jamaica, artistic theft goes on. I wrote recently about Reggae producers' casual penchant for reusing, again and again, familiar rhythms (riddims) and recorded tracks and favorite tunes. (Producer Lee Perry would typically cut a half dozen versions and variations--vocal, instrumental, and dub--on a single rhythm and melody.) Due to a lack of copyright agreements, this has also extended to blatant thefts of whole tunes from U.S. hit recordings.

A vacationing Neil Diamond or Curtis Mayfield or whoever might suddenly hear one of his own songs being played on the radio or sound system, but with new lyrics in place of the original, and no royalties being paid. However, while the illicit reworking of tracks created by Motown or Aretha Franklin or Los Lobos or whoever has been going on for 40 years at least, I don't actually know the present status of Kingston-style borrowing; the rewrites continue, but maybe the copyrights are being honored somehow. In this Brave New I-Pod World, as listeners get downloads rather than down, who knows whose rights will be honored?

It doesn't really matter. Call it theft, call it homage--creative people love to subtly acknowledge, or rudely tweak, each other's accomplishments, and to stand on one another's shoulders as they scramble to the top. The cave painters in France and Spain did it, and Picasso followed suit. Bach wrote his Cello Suites, and Benjamin Britten heard other melodies. Elvis copied the way Jackie Wilson danced, and the Cullums and Bubles are still working on their Sinatra.

They all hoped to steal a march on Time. Or at least borrow a few more minutes.


Alan Kurtz said...

One hell of an essay, Ed. Chockfull of scholarship without being the least bit pedantic. And all this sprung from your "half-hearing some other car's radio while waiting in the ferry boat line recently?" I can't imagine how much better it might've been if you'd wholly heard that radio. Holy radio!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it as well....perhaps a book can be had out of the essay.....would be one hell of a book, and could cover the rip-offs in all genres, from the obvious(Zeppelins pilfering of the blues catalog, especially Willie Dixon), all the way back to 50's rockers, from Sam Phillips Sun Sessions rockers who appropriated what they saw in the Black Memphis clubs, back to the jazz mutual pilfering mentioned.....surely could be a best-seller!

I Witness said...

Thanks for the vote(s) of confidence. I really should have talked about Led Z and Stones stealin' the Blues and only crediting authors years later when caught. But they and Sun Records guys were only doing what had been done for a hundred years--Whites (but Blacks too) learning, trading, and also thieving each other's techniques and ideas.

Bruno Leicht said...

Hi Ed --

As Benny Goodman has introduced his Guy Lombardo parody in his medley at Carnegie Hall, on October 6, 1939: "Remember, that's really all in fun."

No one has ever stolen the blues from anyone. Either you got it, or you ain't. You can't steal it.

But I love your essays.

Keep up the good work.


I Witness said...

Thanks for the generous words, Brew--they mean much coming from a knowledgeable musician and fan such as you are. And everyone should check out his excellent mostly Jazz blog, accessible through his name link above.