Everything Is a Remix, part XXIV

January 7, 2014 § 2 Comments

Although originality is certainly a virtue, I see a problem with the fact that artists are often accused of “ripping off” other artists by copying and incorporating portions of their songs in their own work. Not only does popular music—and music in general—depend largely on choosing between elements of an already existing repertoire of themes, techniques and ideas, it could be argued that part of the artistry is the ability to cleverly incorporate and rearrange these elements in new ways to create something novel and uniquely personal. After all, if one was required to reinvent the wheel with each song, or book, there would be very few songs to listen to, or books to read, and the distinction between being influenced by someone and outright copying them is not necessarily so clear—the point at which an idea is modified so much that it becomes another distinct idea is not so clear either. If ideas can be “stolen,” then most of us are thieves on some level. Furthermore, music, as one human activity among many, like language, is subject to inherent limitations resulting from our inborn capacities (genetic makeup), and so we should expect to see what are basically unlimited variations on a finite set of abilities—we should not expect humans, in other words, to begin producing “non-human” music. Even though we all have certain inherent capacities which are more or less the same, no one creates in a vacuum, and most human activities are a result of a collaboration, whether direct or indirect. In fact, it could even be said that this blog post itself is a remix of an idea which inspired me in the first place to write on the topic (of course, this apparent similarity is merely a coincidence).

R.L. Burnside Delta Blues 1969

Album “Mississippi Delta Blues – Vol. 2” released by Arhoolie in 1969 (thanks to Stefan Wirz [www.wirz.de])

For example, according to the presentation on R.L. Burnside’s 1969 release on Arhoolie (recorded in 1967), his track “Skinny Woman” is based on Yank Rachell’s 1934 recording of “Gravel Road Woman.” In what might be its earliest recorded form, we can locate a version of “Gravel Road Woman” interpreted by Yank Rachell & Dan Smith. Musically, they are similar in the way that many Delta Blues songs are similar, but not recognizably so, and Burnside simply seems to have used the idea and lyrics of the song as an inspiration for his own creation, most notably the repetitive melodic motif in the bass. Burnside’s song was later covered, with different lyrics, by the Black Keys under the title “Busted,” released in 2002. Moving to Scottish musician Bert Jansch, who was himself influenced by American folk and blues singers, “Blackwater Side,” itself based on the traditional folk song “Down by Blackwaterside,” was released in 1966, three years before Burnside’s album—the song incorporates a motif very similar to Burnside’s “Skinny Woman” but was released before it, raising the question of who exactly influenced whom, if at all. Led Zeppelin, whose tendency to lift the songs of bluesmen/women for their own purposes is well-documented, released their—or rather, Jimmy Page’s—version of the song in 1969 under the title “Black Mountain Side,” thereby barely concealing the origins of the piece.

This all brings us to four observations of interest: 1) Although a song may be “based on” another, it can sound rather different, 2) Unoriginal ideas may still result in good music, 3) When copying, it is not the lack of originality which is insulting, as much as it is the failure to acknowledge where one’s ideas come from, and 4) Even though one may not even be aware of the provenance of one’s ideas, they may still be virtual copies of other ideas.

Yank Rachell & Dan Smith: Gravel Road Woman (released 1934)

Bert Jansch: Blackwater Side (released 1966)

R.L. Burnside: Skinny Woman (released 1969)

Led Zeppelin: Black Mountain Side (released 1969)

The Black Keys: Busted (released 2002)


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