Thursday, May 28, 2020

Love & Theft: Dylan, Harrison, Cave, Calloway, The Doors, Tchaikovsky, etc.


Musicians rely on each other for inspiration
(image © RwHarwood -- with thanks to
Albert Gliezes for his inspiration.
)
On May 12, 2020 NPR published an article by Tom Moon titled, "Trickster Treat: Bob Dylan's New Song Sounds Awfully Old ... And Familiar." The article describes the musical similarities between Dylan's 2020 song, "False Prophet," on the CD Rough and Rowdy Ways, and Billy "The Kid" Emerson's 1954 song, "If Lovin' Is Believing," illustrated with sound files and an analysis of how the musical structures between the songs are both alike and different.

Moon concludes:
"These specific instances might be defined as thievery only by the narrowest definition. In a fundamental sense, popular music is an ongoing conversation between the creators of the present and those who came before -- a circuit of inspiration to which successive artists contribute some kernel of truth, some new way of looking at an enduring element of human nature."

Nick Cave in his April 20, 2020 edition of The Red Hand Files, receiving a question about "originality in music," responded (in part):

"The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation -- everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It's a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music -- the great artistic experiment of our era.
"Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary - even admirable - tendency, and that is to steal ... to advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.
"... We musicians all stand on the shoulders of each other, our pirate pockets rattling with booty, our heads exploding with repurposed ideas."

Cave asked his collaborator, composer Warren Ellis, how much he has stolen: "Everything, absolutely everything."

From a site called "hitchr" here are a couple of samples:
Abba's "Waterloo" next to The Foundations "Build Me Up Buttercup."
Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" next to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down."

Ray Manzarek explains how his band, The Doors, adapted "Ghost Riders In The Sky" to create "Riders On The Storm":



There are thousands of examples: Radiohead "Karma Police" vs The Beatles "Sexie Sadie." One Direction "One Thing" vs The Clash "Should I Stay Or Should I Go." R.E.M. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" vs Bob Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Bob Dylan "Hard Times In New York Town" vs Traditional "Penny's Farm."

The Carter Family are famous for having copyrighted songs from the musical traditions of Appalachia after minimally modifying them, sometimes only changing a few words.

In 1931 Cab Calloway had a major hit with "Minnie the Moocher," the song by which he is best remembered today. Cab Calloway, Irving Mills, and Clarence Gaskill cobbled the song together with bailing twine. Its orchestration and melody were from Cab's earlier recording of "St. James Infirmary;" its lyrical content from a turn-of-the-century song about a chimney-sweep and his drug-induced dreams, "Willie the Weeper." ("Minnie the Moocher" told the story of a woman and her drug-induced dreams.)

Famously, George Harrison was found guilty of appropriating The Chiffons "He's So Fine" when writing "My Sweet Lord." Copyright lawyer Charles Cronin has a remarkable website detailing song copyright arguments. A small part of the final decision said:

"What happened? I conclude that the composer in seeking musical materials to clothe his thoughts, was working with various possibilities. As he tried this possibility and that, there came to the surface of his mind a particular combination that pleased him ... in other words, that this combination of sounds would work. Why? Because his subconscious knew it had already worked in a song and his conscious mind did not remember."

Nevertheless, in a judgement that remains controversial, Harrison was found guilty of infringing copyright law. He probably was not helped by his former band mate, John Lennon, saying:

"He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that ... George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have even touched him ..."

"Could have changed a few bars ..."


It's not just popular music. Tchaikovsky based the opening theme of his piano concerto in B-flat major on the songs of blind beggars he'd heard in the Russian village of Kalemko. Vaughan Williams and Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok scoured the countryside as song collectors, incorporating borrowed melodies into their own compositions. An Alexander Borodin melody from his opera "Prince Igor" became the Tin Pan Alley tune "Stranger in Paradise."

In a 1916 edition of Green Book magazine (1909-1921) songwriter Irving Berlin wrote: "There has been a standing offer in Vienna, holding a large prize, to anyone who can write eight bars of original music. The offer has been up for over twenty-five years. Thousands of compositions have been submitted, but all of them have been traced back to some other melody."

Berlin continued, "Our work is to connect the old (musical) phrases in a new way ..."

Anything we create is built upon something previous. The initial aim of copyright law was to give people an incentive to create, and then to return that creation to the common ground for others to build upon. Everything is based on something that went before, and so everything belongs to our commonality. Creative people will create. That's the nature of things. Copyright is useful in providing them with income. Extend copyright restrictions too long, though, and it can stultify the creative process. (Present copyright laws are responses to corporate, not individual or public, needs.)

Which brings us back to the beginning of this entry. That someone found a link between a song Bob Dylan recorded and another song ... well, that's music. That's love and theft.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Phil Baxter, 1925 co-composer of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Phil Baxter was a pianist and band leader in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a prolific song-writer. Among his better known compositions are the rather risque "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" (recorded by a host of musicians from Phil Harris to Louis Armstrong), "Piccolo Pete" and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" (both were major novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), as well as "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).
Phil Baxter

Baxter and Carl Moore published "Gambler's Blues" in 1925. Four years earlier Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Eventually Baxter settled in Kansas City where, leading a band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra. Moore created his own band; with a mixture of sophisticated dance arrangements and down-home humour, he was a popular entertainer.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis in his hands. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose).

(In 1924, a year before Moore/Baxter published "Gambler's Blues," Carl Sandburg published a book of "traditional" American songs containing a very similar piece, "Those Gambler's Blues.")

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary includes a brief biography of Baxter. Information about him is not easy to find. Recordings of his can still be discovered on CD and on streaming services, in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Phil Baxter's band with his 1929 composition "I Ain't Got No Gal Now."

Original recording of Phil Baxter's 1928 "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas."
Baxter's published version has seven verses, so this is a bit abbreviated.


Original recording of Phil Baxter's and Carl Moore's "Gambler's Blues"
(aka "St James Infirmary") 1927 - recorded one year before Louis Armstrong's
"St. James Infirmary" and two years after Moore/Baxter published it.


Louis Armstrong's original 1928 "St. James Infirmary." He recorded the song at
least twice more.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI