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Sounds Familiar?

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

The enormous success of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" led to legal action aagainst him

There’s an old adage, often heard in music studios, which goes something like: “Behind every good songwriter is … someone else’s song.” And Americana music – embodying roots, folk and blues genres - is not without a history of music appropriation.

Whether it be on a front porch in some sleepy hollow in West Virginia or in a shady bar along an old dirt road in deepest Mississippi, someone, somewhere has been strumming or humming a song learned from a long-lost ancestor. And that very elder may have first heard such a ballad on a windy Scottish Isle or dusty village along the east coast of Africa.

For, as Paul Simon once told Rolling Stone, “a song is capable of having several life spans!” Or maybe Bob Dylan put it better when he – also to Rolling Stone – remarked: “It’s called song-writing. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.” But maybe Muddy Waters said it best: “This song comes from the cotton fields.”

There is no doubt that songs lost their innocence when crude phonograph players became readily available throughout America in the 1920’s. And this led to the emergence of a music recording industry, pioneered by the likes of Ralph Peer for his company Victor Records.

It was Peer who established a crude mobile “recording machine” in the hillbilly capitol of Bristol on the border of Tennessee and Virginia. There, in August 1927, he would record two acts – the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers – which would change the history of music, of whatever genre.

The Carters – a trio comprising A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle – were steeped in traditional Appalachian mountain songs. They had read in a local paper that Victor would be having a recording session in Bristol for 10 days. Peer would only have to hear Sara utter one note to know he had stumbled upon a fortune.

How that fortune would be distributed - whether it be to the Carters or Rodgers - would become an industry in itself. All in all, it would be a fascinating vaudeville starring talented artists, inventive songwriters, pretenders, con-men and downright thieves.

This spectacle, now spanning more than a century, is no better documented than in Clinton Heylin’s 2015 publication It’s One For The Money which could claim to be one of the most meticulously researched books on the music industry. British-born Heylin has long been regarded as one of the most respected musical historians, having produced more than 20 music related books - eight on Bob Dylan alone.

It’s One For The Money traces the evolution of the music publishing business from those early days of Ralph Peer, culminating in the multi-billion dollar industry known today as popular music!

However, for lovers of roots music, there is true fascination in tracing the musical DNA of songs – whether it be the notes, melody or lyrics – as they transformed from their most naked form in that Appalachian valley or a southern jook joint.

Perhaps the most contentious issue – and one at the heart of roots (folk) music – is liberties that songwriters take with what is known as traditional music, loosely defined as music whose origins pre-date – or indeed outdate - any current copyright legislation. In other (legal) words: … in the “public domain.”

From Heylin’s research, and, indeed, a wide variety of sources, Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation has selected 10 traditional or original songs which spawned into international hit records, recognised and loved throughout the world. Crossroads makes no judgement on rightful copyright holders or rightful equitable distribution of revenue from their success. Let the facts, as we know them, speak for themselves.

The Sounds Familiar list places the original song first, with the best sellers listed in parenthesis. There is no order of priority.

Wild Mountain Thyme – Francis McPeake (Wild Mountain Thyme – Various Artists)

There are more than 80 released recordings of this beautiful Celtic folk song, the first formally recognised as “Wild Mountain Thyme” was by Francis McPeake in 1957. It was McPeake’s uncle of the same name who had “adapted” - both lyrics and melody – the song “The Braes of Balquhidder,” attributed to poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) and composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780-1829). And neither of these Scottish artists held copyright to the tune, unsurprising since their 18/19th century origins. So, given the song’s universal popularity, McPeake’s claim to copyright could be regarded as something of a gold mine. However, the majority of these 80+ musicians who have recorded the song since McPeake cite it as “traditional.” There is no better example than Bob Dylan whose intoxicating version - recorded live with The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 31, 1969 – was first published in 2013 on the much-praised Deluxe Edition of The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 Another Self Portrait (1969-71). This Deluxe Edition clearly lists the song as “Wild Mountain Thyme” (Traditional). Perhaps the best legal stoush over the song involved Rod Stewart who was threatened with a lawsuit by the Northern Irish McPeake family after his 1990 rendition. Stewart, a proud Scot, was having none of it. He and his publishers stood firm on its traditional Scottish origins as “The Braes of Balquhidder.”

Crescent City Blues – Gordon Jenkins/Beverley Mahr (Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash)

Johnny Cash first heard Crescent City Blues when a fellow Army recruit played it to him while both were serving in Germany. It had been written by Gordon Jenkins, a respected composer and arranger in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. It was first released on Jenkins’ 1953 album Seven Dreams when it was actually sung by Beverley Mahr. The melody is said to have been “borrowed” from a 1930’s instrumental of the same name by Little Brother Montgomery. The song told the story of a lonely woman wanting to leave the Midwestern town of Crescent City. Cash’s lyrics were largely the same as composed by Jenkins except when he needed to change the perspective of the narrator who, of course, was now an inmate of Folsom Prison and clearly not a forlorn lady in Crescent City. (The idea to swap the city with a prison apparently came to Cash after he saw a frightening documentary on the said penitentiary.) Perhaps the most famous line that was all Cash – But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die – impressed legendary Memphis producer Sam Phillips. Cash told Phillips the origin of the song but the story goes that Sam didn’t care as he told Cash “everyone was taking stuff from old songs.” “Folsom Prison Blues” was recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis on July 30, 1955 and released as a single with the B side “So Doggone Lonesome.” It reached #4 on the Billboard C&W Best Sellers chart in 1956. The following year it was the 11th track on Cash’s debut album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar. The song, of course, got a global revival in 1968 when Cash performed it before inmates at Folsom State Prison for his live album At Folsom Prison which reached #1 on the country music charts. The song would win Cash a Grammy the next year for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male. In 1975, some 20 years after it was first recorded, Jenkins decided to take legal action against Cash. He received an out-of-court payment of approximately $US75,000, with the songwriting credit staying with Cash – not a bad outcome for the Man in Black whose masterpiece generated millions.

Dazed And Confused – Jake Holmes (Dazed And Confused – Led Zeppelin)

This is one of the more defined examples of how a folk-rock song was transformed into a rock-folk song and in doing so the authorship was transferred. There is no dispute the original was written by American singer-songwriter Jake Holmes and included in his 1967 debut album “The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes. English pop band The Yardbirds heard Holmes perform the song when he opened their concert in Greenwich village in the year of its release. They took an instant liking to it and would go on to include it on their tour setlist, having reworked it in some way, including an alternate title – “I’m Confused.” And when The Yardbirds disbanded in 1968 and their guitarist Jimmy Page would go on to form legends Led Zeppelin, he further re-arranged the song – now back to its original title - along with vocalist Robert Plant, who added some more bluesy lyrics. It was recorded in October 1968 and released the following year on the group’s self-titled debut album. Sole writing credit was now given to Jimmy Page. No reference to Holmes, or, indeed, to Plant. In June 2010 – more than 40 years after its release - Holmes filed a lawsuit in the U.S. alleging copyright infringement. Page was named as co-defendant. An out-of-court undisclosed settlement was reached the following year. The suit was formerly “dismissed with prejudice” in January 2012. Subsequent Led Zeppelin albums credit “Dazed and Confused” to “By Page – Inspired by Jake Holmes.”

Nottamun Town – Jean Ritchie (Masters of War – Bob Dylan)

Here is another prime example of an English medieval song transported to North America in early colonial days. Versions of the song, sometimes known as “Nottingham Fair” soon emerged in states where immigrants found jobs in coal mines or on the expanding railroads. And then in 1954 it was popularized by Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie who would study the links between American ballads and songs which crossed the Atlantic with settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland. Ritchie, who had the distinction of appearing at the very first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, had indeed been performing “Nottamum Town” since the mid 1950’s. It was a song she learnt from her Uncle Jason. It is not known when she first heard Bob Dylan perform “Masters of War” – his generation-defining song off The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963). But it would have taken only one tap of a toe to realise Dylan had replicated the tune and her arrangement of “Nottamun Town,” which she had by now at least patented. In those days Witmark Music had publishing rights to Dylan. They settled quickly with Ritchie for an unknown sum. But words and music to “Masters of War” forever remained with Bob Dylan. Ritchie died in 2015 at aged 92. She may not have her name attached to a famous song, but her wonderful legacy as a great custodian of traditional Appalachian songs will always remain.

Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons – Paul Clayton (Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan)

Paul Clayton was a prominent figure of the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York during the much-publicised folk music revival of the 1960’s. He mingled with the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan during that period. Clayton, who recorded at least eight solo albums and a host of compilations, specialised in traditional music like sea shanties and Appalachian ballads. But he became famous for one particular composition “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone).” Why? Because it was allegedly appropriated by one Bob Dylan in the form of one of his most popular songs “Don’t Think Twice, It’ All Right.” Yes Clayton’s original was clearly one based on a traditional song, known as “Who Gonna Bring You Chickens,” dating back to the turn of the 20th century. But everything in “Don’t Think Twice” was too similar to the arrangement of “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons” to ignore. And ignore it, Clayton did not - though it hurt him to challenge Dylan who was a rising star the likes of a struggling Clayton was eager to be associated with. There were lawsuits issued by the publishers of both singers (and friends) but again the matter was settled out of court. In his book, “It’s One For The Money,” Clinton Heylin states Clayton may have received only $US500 in the settlement. Words and music to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” remained with Dylan. He and Clayton remained friends until Paul committed suicide in 1967.

Got My Mojo Working – Ann Cole and the Suburbans (Got My Mojo Working – Muddy Waters)

There are more than 1600 documented versions of “St Louis Blues”, considered the most popular American blues song ever written. Pick any dozen and find one which exactly replicates the other. Impossible! So, imagine the minefield which blues composers started treading when the US Copyright legislation was introduced in 1909. It is not surprising therefore to find countless examples of songs defined as blues which ended up in a cesspit of plagiarism and creative chicanery. “Got My Mojo Working” fits smack bang into such a category. It was written by Preston “Red” Foster, a humble African American musician, and recorded by Ann Cole, a popular R&B singer in the 1950’s. Before Cole’s version was actually released, she toured with blues master Muddy Waters and each night when she opened his show, Ann would play “Mo Jo.” Waters took an instant liking to the tune. He went back to Chicago and told Chess Records maestro Leonard Chess that he had written a new song and wanted to record it. Chess obliged and Muddy’s copyrighted “Got My Mojo Working” was released the same week as that by Ann Cole and the Suburbans. Litigation followed. Dare Music, holder of the Preston Foster copyright, sued Arc Music Group, holder of the Morganfield (Muddy Waters) copyright. It was settled out of court with Arc deferring to the Foster composition. Not to be outdone in the shark-infested waters of blues song-snatching, there was a further lawsuit in New York in 1973 when a Ruth Stratchborneo sued the lot of them - Arc/Waters and Dare/Foster – claiming all had infringed copyright to her song “Mojo Workout.” She lost. The ruling stated the word “mojo” was in the public domain and the use of it in the various recordings did not constitute infringement. More importantly, the judgement stated unequivocally that “Dare is the owner of a valid copyright originally issued to Preston Foster on October 29, 1956.” FYI the word Mojo is from African-American culture and defined as a magical charm bag used in voodoo. Legal voodoo maybe?

Sweet Little Sixteen - Chuck Berry (Surfin’ U.S.A. – The Beach Boys)

The 1960’s were famous for emerging British R&B groups morphing traditional blues songs from across the Atlantic. “Sweet Little Sixteen’s” journey was somewhat shorter – from the Midwest to California! It would become an R&B classic, reaching number one in the Best Sellers charts for Chuck Berry in 1958, the same year he first performed it at the Newport Jazz Festival. But it hit the headlines five years later when Californian group the Beach Boys had a smash hit with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” written by the group’s co-founder Brian Wilson. It soon became apparent that the melody was exactly the same as Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Berry’ publishers wasted little time demanding 50 per cent of the Beach Boys’ royalties. Song-writing credit was switched to “Wilson-Berry”, though in some later releases, such as “Best of” albums, Berry is credited as the sole writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” There is, of course, no doubt that the lyrics were written by the Beach Boys, but which one became the subject of one of most acrimonious in-fighting in popular music. Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love always claimed he wrote most of, or at least co-wrote, the lyrics to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” with cousin Brian Wilson – and indeed other songs. And this would be established in the outcome to his famous 1994 lawsuit against Brian. It was during the case that probably the best line to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was uttered. It was not in song but in court, when Love - during his six days on the stand - quipped: “The song is credited to Chuck Berry, which is all well and good, but Chuck didn’t surf.”

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You – Joan Baez (Babe I’m Gonna Leave You – Led Zeppelin)

This was a wholesome folk song which could have remained lost in the California folk clubs of the late 1950’s had not the writer Anne Bredon performed on a live folk-radio show around 1960. Another folkie Janet Smith developed her own version and also sang it on the same radio station. This time it was heard by the biggest name in folk at the time – one Joan Baez. She would soon include it in her setlist and it appeared on Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1, released in 1962 with the credit: “Traditional, arr Baez.” Across the Atlantic, Jimmy Page was putting together a new rock band, Led Zeppelin. He heard the Baez version and decided to take it into the band’s early recording sessions. It was subsequently released on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album with the credit: “Traditional, arr Page.” The version was, given the electric guitar riffs, somewhat different to Baez as indeed was its length – almost double Joan’s version. Baez had long acknowledged – maybe as early as 1964 – that Bredon was the rightful author and later releases of her original concert album switched the writing credit to “Anne L. Bredon.” Then sometime in 1980’s – more than 20 years after her original composition – Bredon was made aware of Led Zeppelin’s recording. She sued and received “substantial” back-payments in royalties. Since 1990 the Led Zeppelin version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” reads: “Anne Bredon, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.” (Yes vocalist Plant

now in the mix.)

Mbube – Solomon Linda (Wimoweh – The Weavers/The Lion Sleeps Tonight - The Tokens)

This began as an African roots song about a lion (“Mbube”). It transported to another continent as a singalong folkie (“Wimoweh”). It would be morphed into a Doo-wop Billboard #1 (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). And it ended up in the soundtrack of a multimillion-dollar movie. It was originally written in Zulu by Solomon Linda who would record it in 1939 for the Gallo Record Company in Johannesburg where he worked as a cleaner in their studios. More than a decade later it would end up on another continent in the hands of an American folk legend Pete Seeger who, with his group The Weavers, would transcribe it into a Top Ten folk 78 single “Wimoweh”. Despite knowing its origin, The Weavers treated the song as “traditional” and, somewhat cynically, claimed royalties under the pseudonym “Paul Campbell.” Seeger would later get a prick of conscience, sending Linda a $US1000 and instructing the publishers Folkways to include the South African in future royalties. No one ever established if any money got through to the man himself. (Linda had in fact sold the rights to Gallo for very little.) What did happen is that the song would become a global sensation. In 1961, it got a Doo-wop/Rhythm & blues make-over by The Tokens who turned it into a world-wide smash-hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Disney would later use it as part of the sound track to the film and musical production The Lion King. By the time a South African journalist exposed the copyright injustice in a 2000 article in Rolling Stone, Linda had long passed away. And although it was known he had originally signed away all rights, Linda’s estate would, in 2004, sue Abilene Music, the publishers who now had world rights and had licensed the song to Disney. A settlement resulted in a one-off payment for past and future earnings from “The Lions Sleep Tonight” to be placed in an estate trust. Interestingly, “Mbube,” the song which began it all, is now back in the public domain under South African copyright law.

Kookaburra – Marion Sinclair (Down Under – Men at Work)

There are a lot of similarities between the contested copyright to this song and that of “Mbube.” Both were traditional numbers, reflecting the roots of their origin. Both original writers were dead by the time the legal battles over their compositions got under way. And both their songs contributed to big hits. Marion Sinclair was a Melbourne music teacher in 1934 when she entered her song “Kookaburra (Sits in the Old Gum Tree)” in a competition run by the Girls Guides Association of Victoria, whereby the rights to the winning entry would be sold to raise money for the association. The song would become popular around the world and generally adopted as a nursery rhyme in Australia. In 1981, the Aussie band Men at Work included a five-bar flute snippet from “Kookaburra” in their smash-hit “Down Under.” It was legally established that the rights to Sinclair’s folk number were now held by Larrikin Music, even though counsel for Men at Work’s record company had claimed Girl Guides Association still had the rights – placing the song in the popular perception that it was within public domain. In 2009 - 28 years after the release of “Down Under” - Larrikin sued, claiming between 40 and 60 per cent of the royalties back-dated to the year of release. The judgement, a year later, recognised the snatch of “Kookaburra” used in the pop song was hardly a significant factor in the song’s success. Larrikin ended up getting just five per cent, backed to only 2002 – but this was still considered to be a six-figure sum. Speculation that “Kookaburra” may have derived from a Welsh folksong was dismissed by some Welsh music academics. There is a sad post-script to this saga. Two years after the court judgement, Greg Ham, the Men at Work musician who contributed the infamous flute riff, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 58. It was known that he suffered anxiety over the protracted copyright lawsuit.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation

Sounds Familiar?

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