Ryan Harvey

The Folk Process VS Intellectual Property

In Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 4:24 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

An email was sent to me recently regarding my song “What Did You Learn on the News”. The writer opened his letter by stating his appreciation of my music and that he was glad someone was writing modern political songs.

The bulk of the email was concerning my use of a tune (and concept) I learned from Tom Paxton’s “What Did You Learn In School Today”. The writer was quite uncomfortable with my song, calling is “plagiarism” and wondering if I had gone through the appropriate channels before using the tune, only backing from that term if I had properly cited Tom in my albums or performances.

Discussing the “folk process”, the process by which songs are written, re-written, changed, and shared, he hoped I had done the right thing. The email ended saying that the writer would love to share “my” music with people (the quotes meaning to say that this music isn’t mine, it’s Tom Paxton’s or someone else’s) but “I’m hesitant to recommend “your” music to anyone until I confirm that you are properly citing and not “stealing” another’s intellectual property.”

So I thought this was a topic that a radical folk singer needs to explore in writing.

For starters, I respect Tom Paxton a lot, that’s why I paid homage to him in song. And I do give credit to him in the liner notes of that album and often at shows, but not always. Anyways, Tom Paxton is one of the finer political folk singers in U.S. history, and he’s still got it. A listen on his website (www.tompaxton.com), especially his “George W. Told That Nation”, a re-write of his own song “Lyndon Johnson Told That Nation”, will show you this. He also helped really define the “topical songwriter”, which produced many of the recent voices from the radical folk-scene, myself included.

There’s a certain level of respect deserved to those who’ve stayed in it for decades without selling out big or wilting too hard. Jim Page is another who goes in this category. Of course, I can’t say that same for Bob Dylan, though it may (and has before) pissed off the older folks out there.


Most of the “greats” of the 60’s, Dylan included, ripped tunes off Guthrie and other earlier American, African-American and Irish artists. Most African-American and Irish tunes don’t even have authors, as centuries of the folk process have delivered them to the commons, perhaps as the artists wished. In Guthrie’s case, he made it clear when he said “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

In fact, during the 2004 Election-parody controversy (when the web-based animation site JibJab was sued by Ludlow Music, the owners of the rights to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, NPR suggested that Woody lifted the tune for This Land from a 1930 Carter Family gospel tune called “When The World’s On Fire”. Woody also used tunes like the Carter Family’s big hit “Wildwood Flower” for his “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, which apparently is a re-write of an 1800’s pop song. Woody once said of Carter “He was a great song stealer, but I was greater than he, because I stole some of his.” Woody didn’t just steal from the Carter Family. He also took the tune of “Red Wing” by Kerry Mills and wrote “Union Maid”.

An online blogger pointed out a Pete Seeger quote on Woody: “He tended to write words first, and later on picked out a tune. Woody once said, ‘When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.'” And many have lifted Woody’s tunes. Bob Dylan used Woody’s “1913 Massacre” for his “Song For Woody Guthrie” (which I also lifted for “Appalachian Mountain Massacre”. And countless folk singers (Paxton included) have used “Talkin Blues” styles derived from Guthrie and other earlier songwriters.

Woody took the tune of “John Hardy” and wrote “Tom Joad” to it, then Phil Ochs took this same tune and wrote “Joe Hill”. Joe Hill, the famous Wobbly folk singer at the turn of the century, and maybe one of the most respected activist-folk singers in history, stole almost all his tunes. The tune of his most well-known song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, was jacked from a Salvation Army hymn called “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. “The White Slave” was jacked from Leo Frieman’s “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland”. “Should I Ever be a Soldier” was jacked from Fred Helf’s “Colleen Bawn”.

Other IWW folk-singers jacked tunes as well. Goddard Graves used the black spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” to write “Go I Will Send Thee”, a union song. John Brill used “Take it to the Lord in Prayer” to write “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back”. John Kendrick used “Onward Christian Soldiers” to write “Christians at War”.

“We Shall Overcome” became the theme-song of the Civil Rights movement. However, it was likely derived from a combination of places; The words from a 1903 song by Rev. Charles Tindley and an anonymous gospel tune sung in black churches in the late 1800s, and the tune from the 1794 hymn “O Sanctissima”. Pete Seeger was on of the first artists to record “We Shall Overcome”, and it generally credited with changing the original “I” to “We”. Some trace the final concoction back to Atron Twigg, a composer from the early/mid 1900s.

In the 1930s, Florence Reese wrote one of the most powerful working-class
folk songs of all time, “Which Side Are You On”. Where she got the tune is a debate between the Batist hymn “Lay the Lily Low” and an old British ballad called “Jack Munro”. Either way, she jacked the tune. This tune and concept was recently used by the revolutionary hip-hop trio Rebel Diaz in their modern re-write “Which Side Are You On”, expressing solidarity with various social movements around the world.

In 1855-56, it is believed, William Steffe wrote the song “Brothers Will You Meet Us” to the tune of a camping song, which then became “John Brown’s Body”, a Union Army abolishionist song. In 1861, Julia Ward Howe took the tune and concept and wrote what would later be named “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This same tune and concept was then used by Ralph Chaplin to write the union-anthem “Solidarity Forever”, which was covered by Pete Seeger and many others.

Along with John Brown’s Body, soldiers in the Civil War may have also heard “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, which some believe was originally an Irish tune. The Irish-American author of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” probably didn’t envision that song being written as “The Ants Go Marching 2 By 2” or Malvina Reynold’s “The Judge Said”. Nor did we envision Billy Bragg’s “The Marching Songs of the Covert Battalions” about the U.S. and CIA war against Nicaragua in the 1980s or Jim Page’s version of the original as an anti-war tune shortly after 9/11. What about fellow Irishman (and Wobbly) James Connolly’s “Moderation”? Or Mark Gunnery’s “Government is War?

Should children singing “The Ants Go Marching 2 By 2” reference Patrick Gilmore? Should those singing “We Shall Overcome” in the streets of Birmingham have paid some royalties to the estates of Atron Twigg or Charles Tindley?


The point of all the above info is that tunes are around, and they come from many places. A folk singer might hear a pop-song, write a similar riff on the guitar with different lyrics, sing it differently, and be credited with an original song. Likewise, someone could lift a tune off of a friend or fellow musicians and become famous for it, hence being credited with that creation of the tune. It seems typical that credit is only “deserved” in our society’s eyes to those who have an official role. Tom Paxton is a folk-singer, by profession. Would it be equally sacreligious of me to use a tune taught to me by my cousin, if he is just a factory worker?

I know the folks who own the rights to lots of Phil Ochs songs don’t like folks re-writing his tunes. And granted they have the right to feel that way, respecting Phil’s art and ideas. But that doesn’t mean folks can’t do it.

I’ve re-written a least 10 Phil Ochs songs, and I do give credit as far as referencing Phil, because I respect him a lot. I like to a sing a line of Phil’s and explain where I got the idea from, since often I’m updating the lyrics (or writing all new ones) based on the original concept, theme or emotion of the song. For instance, Phil’s “I’m Going Down To Mississippi”, about a young Civil Rights activist heading for the South becomes “I’m Going AWOL”, the story of an Iraq-vet refusing to return. Both these songs hold close 2 main themes: A person taking a brave stance but desiring to not be considered a hero and what one person can do with their power. So I updated it so that folks today can hear that beautiful tune with a current and applicable subject-matter, just as Bob Dylan ripped “With God On Our Side” off from Dominic Brehen’s “The Patriot’s Game” (which Brehen had jacked from the “The Merry Month of May”), or Phil had taken “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” from the old Irish folk song, “Rosin the Bow”. Evan Greer of Riot-Folk has also lifted the “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” tune and concept for his updated song of the same name.

What good is an anti-Vietnam war song but to tell history? And that’s important, telling history, but there’s also 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq right now. So times like these call for artists and musicians to make cultural change, just as they did during the lives of Malvina Reynolds, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Julia Ward Howe. So we look to those from the past for guidance, and if that means we listen to their songs and write an “original” tune then great. But it can also mean we listen to their songs, learn them, and re-write/recycle them so they become relevant tunes again, in the daily lives of the people around us.


The song in question, “What Did You Learn On The News”, is a conceptual and a tune lift. The concept of “What Did You Learn…” made sense to re-use, as Tom’s song discusses the school-system teaching crap to students about U.S. history and mine is about the Corporate Media teaching crap to everyone who watches it. Same crap getting spewed out, same reasons. And though “What Did You Learn In School Today” is still relevant, I made a new song out of it about a different subject. Now both are relevant. Just as Billy Bragg took “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and wrote “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”. Now they both have a beautiful folk-tribute.

“Talking Blues” is also a concept. Someone came up with this at some point, and Woody Guthrie eventually got known for making it popular (which we often wrongly consider synonymous with inventing). Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton all had em’. Tom had “Talkin’ Pop Art” and “Talkin’ Watergate”. Dylan had “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues”. Ochs had “Talkin’ Cuban Crisis”, “Talkin’ Vietnam”, “Talkin’ Airplance Disaster”, and “Talkin’ Birmingham Jam”.

Now none of them came up with the idea to do a song styled like that and then call it “Talkin’ _____”. They lifted the concept, probably from Guthrie, who probably lifted it from someone before him. No one would question if this was ok. Of course it was ok, it’s the folk process! Talking songs have been written as recently as last week, when I took Pete Seeger’s “Talkin’ Union” and wrote “Talkin’ Union Buster”.


Most talking songs (like most folk songs) use the same tunes. There’s really about 3 that are mainly used, the main progressions being G-C-D and C-F-G. If someone is allowed to copyright these chords (which will probably happen someday soon) folk music will be over. So let’s hope that don’t happen. Point being, there’s only so many tunes and there’s only so much the average person can pull of on an acoustic guitar.

What we see from this writing is that folk music has always relied on the use of other song’s tunes, and the constant re-writing of previous songs. It is an organic process that has produced many beautiful songs that are not always (or even usually) competing. There is no need, for instance, to replace “Ludlow Massacre” with my “Kent State Massacre”. They are 2 songs now, covering 2 topics. One could call this “Folk Multiplication”. I’ll take credit with coining that praise, and if anyone else uses it I’ll sue them!

The folk process is not a legal loophole to avoid copyright infringement, in fact, it is often illegal. It is an organic, grassroots process through which people reclaim what belongs in the commons. It is the musical version of planting food in an abandoned lot. So the question isn’t “Was my use of Tom Paxton’s tune a violation of copyright law?”, it’s “Is the copyright law just?”. The history of folk music, the lineage of the songs and artists that produced people like Paxton, Dylan and Ochs, says NO. And I do too.

And I say give credit when it makes sense to give credit and always know inside yourself that you are part of the folk process, connecting by song to so many great people. But I don’t think the folk process extends to those who are trying to jack the process itself, co-opt it and make it “big”. I have no respect for tune-thieves making big profits in the Industry. That is a betrayal of everything “folk” stands for. But if you’re keeping it grassroots, singing for the same reasons as those before you, treading lightly, then take what you want and leave the rest for the next theif!

While Copyright tends to be a “folk process proof” legal mechanism, Creative Commons is a new alternative which many recent folkies have used, which manages to recognize the folk process while at the same time allowing the artists to protest themselves against corporate co-optation. The music industry is the real thief.

In closing, If we want folk music to continue living, evolving and growing, then we need to not just accept, but fully embrace the “folk process” and admire the creativity of the tune-thief. It is this admiration and clever re-writing that has driven our history as folk singers, and will create the next wonderful batch of critical thinking, socially active, semi-out-of-tune song-writers.

***While doing research for this, I found another re-write called “What Did You Hear on the News Today” by “wildwest” online, at http://www.amiright.com/parody/60s/tompaxton1.shtml***


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