Thursday, August 29, 2013

Plagiarizing The Blues

The other day I was listening to the remastered Disraeli Gears that I bought on iTunes, and I noticed that “Outside Woman Blues” had Eric Clapton listed as the composer. I’m inclined to give Eric the benefit of the doubt on this one, and write it off as an iTunes error, or perhaps the Gracenote database. For one thing, it would be out of character. Clapton has always gone out of his way when it comes to giving credit to his artistic forebears.

But also, on the vinyl copy I bought in 1967 or 68 when it came out, the song was credited to a guy named Arthur Reynolds. The reason I remember this rather obscure fact is that in those pre-internet days this gave me a world of trouble. It was my practice at the time (still is, in fact) to go back and learn as much as possible about the people who wrote the songs I liked, and influenced the musicians I admired. Almost all of the early blues artists that I now love the most came to my attention in this way. I could never find any records by, or even references to an Arthur Reynolds, and it was only some years later that I learned that this was an error on the album credits, and that the actual composer was a guy named Blind Joe Reynolds. At least that’s who I think wrote it, as of right now. I have a recording from 1929 of him playing it. I can thank Eric Clapton for introducing me to Blind Joe Reynolds, and Skip James, and Robert Johnson.

Jimmy Page, of course, takes a slightly different approach. I love Jimmy very genuinely, but it is love with a twitchy asterisk. I wish it were otherwise. I’d like to be able to love Led Zeppelin unconditionally, but sadly I can’t. I don’t actually have as bad an opinion of this pattern in his business practice as people I know, but some of it is so egregious it just breaks my heart. But I digress.

Giving credit where credit is due when you are performing blues tunes can be really tough. I’ve kind of given up saying who wrote a lot of the tunes I play, and instead refer to the artist that I learned it from. Anyone who has ever made an earnest attempt to properly credit the songs they are covering will tell you that the harder you look, the more confusing it gets.

The truth is that the musicians who originated this music nicked one another’s work all the time, and with impunity. My under-educated suspicion is that it was a world populated by musicians who just wanted to play, and were always looking for good material. When they heard a good lick or lyric, they’d grab it and then go write a song around it. Not really avarice, just a hunger for quality material. Was that plagiarism? I can’t really say. Did Robert Johnson really write all that stuff, or was he an extremely gifted aggregator of the material that was floating around in the common culture of the road houses and brothels that served as “the circuit”? What about Willie Dixon? It’s not really a question; just something I think about from time to time. I’m happy to leave it to people who actually enjoy scholarship to figure that stuff out.

For the earliest guys, there really was no monetary incentive to steal credit for a song. Stealing a song, yes. The better the material you played, the more paying gigs you got. But stealing credit? They weren’t getting paid for their compositions. I don’t think anyone was selling sheet music for these songs, so there was no publishing royalty. Maybe I’m wrong about that. If they were of a sufficient stature to get recorded, it was the record producers and record company owners stealing their royalties, not other musicians. I was listening to a Big Mama Thornton album that I borrowed from the library a while back, and noticed that almost every song on the album credited Don Robey as one of the composers. Don Robey was a well-known thug who owned Peacock Records, and didn’t write shit. But that’s where the money was, and getting paid was Don Robey’s business model.

In Undercover Blues Band, we do a song called “Two Trains Running”. I learned it, or at least the lyrics, from the second Butterfield Blues Band album, "East-West". The composer credited on that album is “Davis”, whoever that is. Outside of that record, there really is no such song. It’s basically Muddy Waters’ “Still a Fool” played with an up-tempo Chicago jump groove, and a couple of verses traded out for verses from other Muddy Waters tunes. The arrangement we use for the song is similar to “Still a Fool”, with the particulars lifted from a song on the first Johnny Winter album called “Tribute to Muddy”, which includes many of these lyrics, plus a whole bunch more from other Muddy tunes, played with a mighty, mighty swamp groove. According to the album credits, “Tribute to Muddy” was written by Johnny Winter. Okay, you can claim you wrote someone else's song if you preface the title with "Tribute to"? Both the Winter and Butterfield versions include the familiar “I wish I was a catfish” verse. But that verse is not in "Still a Fool". It is actually the first verse of “Rolling Stone” by Muddy Waters. Oh, wait, it’s the first verse of “Catfish Blues” by John Lee Hooker. Yeah, but that verse about “she’s long and she’s tall and she weeps like a willow tree”, that’s from “Still a Fool”, right? Or is it Hooker’s “Weeping Willow Boogie”?

So basically, if I want to do the honorable thing and credit the composer of this song, I’m screwed. I’m not qualified to say with any authority who wrote it; Hooker? Waters? Some guy named Davis? Butterfield? Johnny Winter? Somebody less well known that they all stole from? I give up.

But one thing I know for damn certain (Jimmy!): I didn’t write it.

New blog, background photo

This is the background image I am using for my reactivated blog. It features a couple of the things in my life that make me happiest. Of course there is Melvin; purr-box extraordinaire. And in this photo he is sleeping on top of my 1965 blackface Fender Super Reverb. From time to time I walk over to this amp, turn it on, plug in the Strat, strum an "E" chord, shut it down, unplug, and walk away smiling. Melvin is indifferent to the glorious sound that comes from the amp, but he is very happy that a pair of 6L6's and a handful 12AX7's make it the warmest spot in the house.

The beast on The Beast

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ralph Davis (1948-2013)

On July 31, 2013, my old friend, Ralph Davis, passed away in his sleep. Ralph was an incredibly gifted pianist, and above all a quality human being. Throughout the 70s we played together in a number of combos. I went to Berklee to study jazz, but most of what I actually know I learned from Ralph. After not seeing him for over 30 years, we managed to reconnect when I was visiting DC for Thanksgiving, 2011. 3/4 of the old band got together to play, and it was a joy. When I was visiting again over the Christmas 2012 holiday, we managed to get everyone together for an afternoon of music. It was like we never left.

I'm heartbroken that he is gone. But I am so very glad we managed to find one another again first.

Some music:

 (feel free to ignore the over-enthusiastic young guitarist)


Now THIS is an obit. Including stuff I had no idea about.

Ralph was born in Brooklyn, New York and spent his early years in Carlisle, Pennsylvania before moving to Washington, DC in his teens. His father Bertram Davis was a university professor and instilled a love of learning in Ralph that never left him. His mother Ruth Benedict was a talented singer and musician and Ralph inherited her love of music.

Ralph graduated from Andover Academy in the early 1960's and continued his education at Columbia University in New York City where he graduated with a degree in Russian Literature. Later he completed a Masters Degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Clinical Hypnotherapy from American Holistic University.

Ralph's talents and interests were varied and eclectic. He was a gifted and innovative jazz musician and an accomplished professional piano player. He attended the Eastman School of Music to further his improvisational skills and became a sought after performer in DC during the 1970's.

Ralph spoke eight languages, was a brilliant writer and editor, and authored eight books on computer programming. He loved to travel, drink good coffee, hike in the Shenandoah Mountains, and recently climbed Buck Mountain in Lake George, New York. An avid reader, Ralph loved contemporary and classical fiction, history, and spiritual reading of all kinds.

Professionally, Ralph accompanied the chorus and led the hand chimes at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and played for musicals at the Riverside Theatre. In addition, he spent much of his life as a computer programmer, and in recent years had also become a hypnotherapist, an energy tapping practitioner, and a mantra master. He thought deeply about life and offered wise counsel to his many clients, friends, and associates. Ralph was a kind and gentle man with a strong loving heart and a deep compassion for all living beings.