Re: Plagarism in the blues [Harp-L] Willie Dixon Controversy

The following link is not a vindication of WIllie Dixon - who surely at the very least borrowed from others as blues players always did - but an interesting article on the complexities of deciding the boundaries of plagiarism.

"Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." Pablo Picasso.

Bob Dylan has always been a fantastic (and extremely open) example of this.

Other interesting musical examples include the acrimonious lawsuit over Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale": Does improvising an opening lick and a couple of other bits constitute "composing a song?" Apparently in law, yes it does (2006), or no it doesn't *(2008)

Another example: Keith Richards helped Johnnie Johnson the pianist sue Chuck Berry (unsuccessfully) because Johnson had contributed a lot to the compositions.

One guesses Willie Dixon often contributed at this level to songs that he was 'adapting'.

If one moves on to blues harmonica licks, then hasn't everyone borrowed from everyone else? Like to my ears Whammer Jammer is a pastiche put together from various Chicago blues licks. So who composed Whammer Jammer? I bet several guys on harp-l have a list of where Magic Dick got the licks.... Does that mean 15 composers or something?

Actually, that was just sampling without a digital recorder! Of course nowadays you have to pay for sampling.

You're right that in folk musics ownership of the composition rights was unimportant until the advent of Rock and mass audiences relatively recently. It is still a very complex issue. How many original changes can be wrung from a 12 bar?

Actually, in the blues I enjoy people's blatant recycling of their OWN successful tunes, with new lyrics, to generate new sales - For instance Elmore James did Dust My Broom in how many versions?

Never happen today of course... It is just advancing age that makes me think that every chart bound song sounds very similar to every other one.

However, speaking as a poet rather than a musician, Willie Dixon, thief or not, is one of only a handful of blues composers who were capable of writing solid lyrics that comprise a coherent poetic thought (whether these are adapted from others or not). Others include Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Leroy Carr, Sonny Boy I, Sonny Boy II. Little Walter. But the majority of blues singers are simply recycling lyrics, often weakening them in the process.

For example:

Weak commonplace version:

Early one morning,
on my way to school,
met a nice looking schoolgirl,
made me forget my mamma's rule (standard blues verse; ooh er the boy's been a bit naughty and is flirting)

Compared to amazing emotive version that perhaps originated the weaker version:
When I was young
on my bigfoot way to school
met a nice looking brownskin
made me lose my mammie's rule (man he ain't going home at all, nor making it to school neither)
Blind Lemon Jefferson, Low Down Mojo Blues
To make it more interesting, both sexual protagonists seem to be male, which presumably would "lose your Mammie's rule" in early 1900s Texas pretty quick.

Should I be correct in my reading, it also makes Blind Lemon's better known song "Black Snake Moan" possibly about bisexuality, but enough straying off topic.


On 24 Nov 2008, at 19:21, jcolbyspell@xxxxxxxx wrote:

In my earlier statement about Willie Dixon claiming credit for songs he did not write, I assumed that this was commonly known. SNIP

Richard Hammersley Grantshouse, Scottish Borders

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