Saturday, June 28, 2008

Songwriting: Walkin' Blues

I often come across articles where the writer bemoans that nowadays, there's nothing new and original in music, that everything is a rehash of what came before when there was a regularity of fresh sounds. The new thing has always been there, but what makes it out to the mass media is based on commercial concerns. It's not like there's nothing new and original. Just go down to the small clubs spread around and you'll hear plenty of new sounds. But economic conditions keep these bands down, the average person wants something they've heard before, the safe and familiar. Captain Beefheart said it best about his own music:

Captain Beefheart Quotes

"I think nutrition is very important. If you eat bad, you feel bad. If you feel bad, you do bad things. Most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt. People cop licks off of dead people, like stealing pennies off a dead man's eyes. The movement needs a bowel movement."

"I don't do lullabyes. I'm tired of lullabyes, like The Beatles. I heard *Lullabye of Broadway* when I was a baby, and I still hear it now, and I'm still a baby. We're the only people doing anything significant in modern music. I haven't heard anything else that gets away from mother's heartbeat. All I've heard is a rebelling against parents, and I'm tired of hearing that."

"I don't believe in time, you know, 4/4 and all that stuff. Frank Zappa believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock 'n' roll, but that's appeasement music."

As I wrote in Songwriting: Night Train, music has been building on itself since the beginning of time, musicians have been "borrowing" from one another forever. I refer to it as Open Source Songwriting - first, let's define Open Source Culture, via Wikipedia:

Open source culture is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

The rise of open-source culture in the 20th century resulted from a growing tension between creative practices that involve appropriation, and therefore require access to content that is often copyrighted, and increasingly restrictive intellectual property laws and policies governing access to copyrighted content. The two main ways in which intellectual property laws became more restrictive in the 20th century were extensions to the term of copyright (particularly in the United States) and penalties, such as those articulated in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), placed on attempts to circumvent anti-piracy technologies.

Although artistic appropriation is often permitted under fair use doctrines, the complexity and ambiguity of these doctrines creates an atmosphere of uncertainty among cultural practitioners. Also, the protective actions of copyright owners create what some call a "chilling effect" among cultural practitioners.

One of the best articles of any sort I've read in recent memory comes from Harpers. Here's some key exerts from it, I highly suggest reading the whole thing.

The ecstasy of influence

  • A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem
    "When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty." The line comes from Don Siegel's 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach's blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel's long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth — to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience — in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into "Absolutely Sweet Marie"? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

    In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled "Country Blues," Waters described how he came to write it. "I made it on about the eighth of October '38," Waters said. "I was fixin' a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing." Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called "Walkin' Blues," asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. "There's been some blues played like that," Waters replied. "This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out — Robert Johnson. He put it out as named 'Walkin' Blues.' I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House." In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he "made it" on a specific date. Then the "passive" explanation: "it come to me just like that." After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that "this song comes from the cotton field."

    Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of "open source" culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called "versions." The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

    Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors.

    As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

    I really don't have anything more to add to this, Mr. Lethem expresses my feelings more eloquently than I ever could. With the Net, the Genie is out of the bottle - I don't think it's going to be possible to get him back in.

    Robert Johnson: Walking Blues


    Muddy Waters: Walkin' Blues


    boyhowdy said...

    A wonderful capstone to the week's discussion, with well-plucked sources. (Lethem is a favorite.) I was wondering when you'd get back to our earlier exchange, Dean.

    I continue to be fascinated by how, in the end, Lethem's position so effectively collapses the false dichotomy of "attribute/compensate v. build upon/co-opt" (aka first use and second use, which is a great way of putting it). If only more folks understood these as two sides of a coin, rather than opposed stances.

    boyhowdy said...

    Also: there seemed to be some confusion earlier about the definition of "true fan" that is starting to show up in social media (my bad; I introduced it; the term "true" can be tricky here). But I mention it because I think Lethem's plea for respect for his "small, treasured usemonopolies" can be understood as a plea for people to act as True Fans -- ie. those who respect the artist, and work to support him out of that respect, even as the work is clearly presented as "plunderable" whether we like it or not.

    Out of the bottle...but the onus of respect is then on us. This isn't, in the end, about the technology, as Lethem and Beefheart both make clear. It's about us -- what we consume, how we consume, and most importantly, who we are when we do.

    Anonymous said...

    The future of music via the Internet is an interesting conversation, no one can predict with certainty what the future holds. Where do music bloggers fit into the picture? Enquiring minds want to know!