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Copyright: the great rock’n’roll swindle

In One for the Money, Clinton Heylin reveals how musicians are constantly stealing songs from each other — and then suing for ownership

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

It’s One for the Money: The Song Snatchers Who Carved Up a Century of Pop & Sparked a Musical Revolution Clinton Heylin

Constable, pp.461, £20

For a music fan, the quiz question, ‘Who wrote “This Land is Your Land”?’ might seem laughably easy. Yet if you answered ‘Woody Guthrie’, I’m afraid you only get half marks. Guthrie did write the lyrics, but following his normal practice he set them to an existing melody — in this case that of the Carter Family’s ‘When the World’s on Fire’, which they’d got from their friend Lesley Riddle, who may well have found it somewhere else. None of which, in 2004, stopped Guthrie’s copyright-holders from threatening a satirical website with a lawsuit when, like Guthrie himself, it put new words to the same tune.

And if that doesn’t sound shameless enough, try this. In 2000, the Rolling Stones were sued for having recorded unattributed versions of songs by the pre-war bluesman Robert Johnson, even though Johnson hadn’t written them either. He’d merely recorded unattributed versions of them — which under the 1976 copyright law now being retrospectively applied to the Stones’ 1960s work meant that he’d been as guilty of theft as they were. (Essentially the law stated that recording an uncopyrighted song was the same as publishing it — and several of Johnson’s songs had already been recorded by others.)

Nonetheless, the money still had to paid to Johnson’s ‘estate’. An old bloke called Claud, whose legal status as Johnson’s heir was established on the evidence of

the elderly Eula Mae Williams, a childhood friend of Claud Johnson’s mother, Virgie Jane Smith Cain… [who] testified that she had watched Cain and Robert Johnson having sex in a wooded area in… 1931, which, nine months later, led to the birth of Claud.

Clinton Heylin’s book is packed with examples such as these of what strange things can happen when popular music and copyright law collide. Throughout the 20th century, he argues, songwriters happily borrowed, were influenced by or just nicked other songwriters’ ideas. (One of the book’s more unexpected snippets is that the Sex Pistols stole the introduction to ‘Pretty Vacant’ from Abba’s ‘SOS’.) But, because the serious money has always been in song publishing, this has not only created some great music. It’s also given record company types endless opportunities for unscrupulous profit.

Heylin begins with W.C. Handy, the man usually called — not least by W.C. Handy — ‘the father of the blues’. Handy may not have composed many of the songs he came to own, but he did have an undeniable gift for transcribing them and plonking his name on the top. Of course, it helped that he was working in what had till then been largely an oral tradition — something that also benefitted the folkies of the 1950s and 1960s, whose preferred credit of ‘Trad. arr.…’ often extended to songs identifiably composed by other people. (Heylin is particularly withering about Pete Seeger for combining this tactic with an undimmed left-wing sanctimony.) A more common habit of the time, meanwhile, was simply for the guys in suits to issue contracts that required their names to be added to all songwriting credits.

Heylin certainly makes a strong case for copyright law as the unseen force behind many aspects of pop history, including what he regards as its sad decline. The ever-increasing rigour with which American courts have applied the 1976 law, he suggests, is why pop music has never again hit its 1960s heights, when Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones were free to prove that ‘interesting people steal more interestingly’.

If this makes It’s One for the Money sound like a book with an arresting central thesis and lots of fascinating details, then that wouldn’t be inaccurate. But nor, unfortunately, would it be the whole truth. For one thing, there’s no shortage of boring details either, as Heylin ploddingly traces the antecedents of almost every song he mentions, however obscure. For another, the arresting thesis is left mostly to the final chapter, where Heylin writes that ‘I hereby reveal that what you have been reading … is one long love letter to creative thievery’ — something that does come as a genuine revelation rather than, say, the logical conclusion to the previous 400 pages. (At the time, they seemed more like a highly knowledgeable muso rambling on about whatever interested him.)

And, like so many otherwise intelligent music books, this one is too often written in a kind of — or, as Heylin would have it, ‘kinda’ — parody of old-school rock-writer prose, where jovial archaisms (‘methinks’, ‘pray tell’) bump up against dated hipster slang (as well as ‘kinda’, we get regular helpings of ‘gonna’, ‘coupla’ and ‘helluva’). ‘Magic Bus’, a typical sentence informs us, ‘restored The ’Oo to chart favour on both sides of the pond… in one swell foop’.

Still, if you can put up with all this, you’ll be rewarded not just with a convincing slice of alternative history, but also with a terrific guide to the evolution of the popular song more generally. In other words, one of the most infuriating things of all about It’s One for the Money is that, however infuriated you become, it’s always well worth reading on.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50 Tel: 08430 600033

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