Showing posts with label Ralph Peer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Peer. Show all posts

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"This Land is Your Land" - and copyright

Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land is Your Land," has been making the news lately. A class action lawsuit is hoping to bring the song into the public domain.

Guthrie published the song in 1945 (although he wrote it five years earlier). At that time copyright extended for 28 years beyond the date of publication, after which it could be re-registered for a further 28 years. Guthrie did not renew the copyright, and so it should have entered the public domain in 1973. A publishing company, though, registered the song as a new creation in 1956 (eleven years after Guthrie published the song) and renewed it in 1984 - by which time the length of copyright had been extended considerably. Clearly (as with Irving Mills and "St. James Infirmary"), they had no right to ownership of the song.

Guthrie based his melody on earlier songs.

An old turn of the 20th century Baptist hymn called "Oh My Loving Brother":

Which The Carter Family used for their song "Little Darling Pal of Mine," recorded in 1928:
And again for "When the World's on Fire," recorded in 1930:


In this context it is interesting that - as I discuss in "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" - song publisher Ralph Peer asked the Carters to modify the traditional songs they heard in their native Appalachia in such a way as to allow the songs to move from the public domain into copyrightable material.  Peer then assumed the copyright for his publishing company, and kept the Carters loyal to him by assigning them a
portion of the royalties (which was a better deal than most publishers were offering at the time).

Some writers, such as Barry Mazor in his important (if hagiographic) 2015 biography "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music," (Chicago Review Press - with a co-copyright credit to Peer's publishing company Southern Music) assert that this is just good business. The reasoning goes that it is the business of song publishing, and the profits that flow from it, that allow these songs to survive and enter public consciousness. In this way capitalism is good for our commonality and for cultural well-being.

More idealistic assertions suggest that song ownership should always reside with the writer, that simply because you have more money does not give you the right to profit excessively from somebody else's work; publishing revenue should be enough. Simply because there is a common practice does not make it a right practice.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More gems from Lefty's Attic

We've finally finished much of the work on the photo website (you can see that here, although it has nothing to do with St. James Infirmary) and so here's another post. I had been planning something about the song collector Dorothy Scarborough, but in the meantime came across this.

By way of explanation, we tend to think first of John and Alan Lomax when we consider song collectors. There were others who preceded them - in North America these include Harry Odum and Dorothy Scarborough. Scarborough's 1925 On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs includes a song that contains a verse with the familiar, "Let her go, let her go / May God bless her, wherever she may be." Her book is a fascinating document, as she comments on the songs and her relationship to them - and interesting in that many of the "Negro songs" she includes obviously came from the minstrel stage.

And then we have Ralph Peer. Peer was a businessman, with little love for the types of songs he was hunting. Still, he went in search of talent, and was responsible for discovering such luminaries as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The records he made with them were profit-seeking ventures, and so we generally don't include them in the canon of discovered folk songs; we don't see them as equally representative of the non-commercial music of the period.

But here - now, this is a different story. When auditioning for Peer, the musicians would bring their own songs - the stuff they were playing and singing at home, or at the village barn dances. Eventually Peer would send A.P. Carter in search of Appalachian folk songs that he could "modify" and thereby declare as original compositions (all the better to copyright, my dear). But our friend, Lonesome Lefty, has made available some of the original 1927 Bristol Session recordings. Here are The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Tenneva Ramblers (Rodgers' band - they split up while arguing about auditioning for Peer), Ernest Stoneman and others, some of whom never recorded again. The sound quality is good, and the download includes the record covers and liner notes. A wonderful find - thanks, Lefty! You can download that album here.

(If you are interested in more detail about these sessions, I can recommend "The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music," published in 2005. Other highly readable resources include Nolan Porterfield's Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler and Mark Zwonitzer's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music.)
Inquiries into the early years of SJI