Collum, Danny Duncan
‘Plagiarism is basic to all culture.” Pete Seeger claims that his father, a Harvard musicologist, told him that. To which I could only reply (plagiarizing Jerry Lee Lewis), “You’re so right you don’t know what you’re saying.”
Seeger was, of course, talking mostly about the folk cultural process by which the same stories and tunes get passed down and reinterpreted from generation to generation. Today that process continues in popular culture. If you don’t believe me, read Dave Marsh’s landmark work of cultural criticism, Louie Louie.
In his book, Marsh traces the strange career of that tune from its beginnings as a pseudocalypso authored by an L.A. rhythm-and-blues singer named Richard Berry, who was inspired by a “cha-cha” he’d heard from a band of Filipino-Americans. Marsh follows the song through various cover versions by white Pacific Northwest garage bands. One of those bands, The Kingsmen, had half-learned the song off a jukebox. They twisted the beat into the now-famous “duh-duh-duh, duh-duh,” and, since their singer didn’t know all the lyrics, he mumbled through some lines. This led to the legendary “secret dirty lyrics,” which led to a national scandal and even an FBI investigation, which declared The Kingsmen’s recording unintelligible at any speed. But Marsh’s story doesn’t end there. He follows “Louie Louie” through an afterlife in which it became the template for countless garage-rock records (starting with that class-conscious classic “Hang On Sloopy”); the “secret lyrics” are finally recorded by Iggy Pop and The Stooges; “Louie Louie” becomes a marching band classic; and the song’s signature riff is reincarnated (with more unintelligible lyrics) as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
THAT ONLY SCRATCHES the surface of Marsh’s grungy findings, but you get my drift. Were there world enough and time (plagiarizing Andrew Marvell), the same analysis could be made of any number of pop-cultural phenomena-such as the way “Good Times” by Chic became “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, which became the whole basis of rap’s first flowering (and introduced the term “hip-hop”). Or, speaking of first flowers, consider the way Elvis Presley and friends tortured Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which was originally recorded in waltz time, into a four-on-the-floor rocker, and the way Bill Monroe himself played their version for the rest of his long career. And this is not just a rock-and-roll story. Jane Smiley’s great novel A Thousand Acres followed the plot outline of Shakespeare’s King Lear almost scene by scene. Classical composers of the past have made free use of folk melodies, and film score composers of more recent times have made free use of phrases and themes from the classics.
In our post-traditional age of laws, this grand confluence of influence, which comprises our culture and feeds our soul, rests on two key legal concepts: fair use and public domain. “Fair use” meant that you had a right to reproduce extensive passages from a copyrighted work, verbatim, if your intent was educational, analytical, or artistic. This absolved reviews, parodies, and pastiche from copyright violation. But note my past tense. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act all but eliminated the fair vise doctrine from electronic copyrights.
And public domain is not far behind on the road to history’s dustbin (plagiarizing Trotsky). It’s in the U.S. Constitution that copyright cannot be extended in perpetuity. The original copyright term in the United States was 14 years, with one possible renewal. Over the course of the 20th century, as the arrival of commercial mass media raised the financial stakes on pop cultural commodities, copyright was extended to 28 years, with a 28-year renewal, then to 75 years. At the turn of the millennium, when the 75-year mark was approaching for Mickey Mouse, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which automatically gave everyone (including Disney and the author of “The Beat Goes On”) an extra 20 years. Barring a popular revolt, or a change at the Supreme Court, we can expect that Congress will continue to extend copyright further and further, yea, even unto the end of the world (plagiarizing St. Matthew).
There may never be another “Louie Louie” or “Rapper’s Delight,” but maybe that’s the idea.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Copyright Sojourners Jul 2004
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