As a songwriter who got his start in the “anti-folk” community of downtown New York performers, I have a certain snobbery when it comes to performing originals as opposed to cover songs. The anti-folk scene emerged on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the mid-80s as an edgier, more creative and underground alternative to the folk clubs on the west side — mainly the notoriously lame Bleecker Street strip, where the past glory of the 60s folk clubs had degenerated into tourist-trap nostalgia joints, where “folk” often meant covers, in clubs that are still as likely to feature a Dylan or Doors or Springsteen “tribute” band as an original act. No, we acoustic-toting songwriters on the East Side were going to take pride in the fact that while our sounds might be less acceptable and less successful, at least we were real artists, judging each other on creativity and punky uniqueness more than on technique and musical accomplishment.
I knew nothing of this when I started writing and playing my songs live at the Sidewalk Café on Avenue A in 1998, but I soon found myself considered to be part of this antifolk movement, which I had never heard of. And I found myself taking pride in antifolk tenets, too (Ironically my last album 12 Crass Songs is made up completely of cover versions of songs written by the British political punk band Crass — but at least they are highly re-arranged covers!)
Taking pride in original songwriting however begs the question, What is an original song, when it comes to folk music (or any genre)?
“Inspired by” is sometimes known as “illegal infringement of copyright,” depending whether or not you're in a court of law!
All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we've seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something “new.” The ancient Greeks seemed to know this, expressed in their belief that the Muses of creativity were the daughters of Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory. Perhaps we would like to think that the thoughts that go into creating a new song are purely impressions from “real life,” but a melody does not suggest itself as much from the impression of the 6 train ride you took this morning as it does from a melody from another song. The same for chord progressions, song concepts, lyric sounds and patterns, song structures and everything else. Folk music is supposed to be a shared continuum after all, and as Louie Armstrong said, “All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song.”
Despite knowing all this, as a supposedly “creative” artist I am often shocked to discover that a song I've written has been a blatant unconscious rip-off of somebody else's song, either in its structure, or lyrics, etc; if I'm lucky the other person's song is not particularly popular or recognizable!
Sometimes I realize this as soon as I've come up with it: “Oh, I can't use that great chorus I just wrote, I guess it's the same melody as that Gnarls Barkley song.” Sometimes I don't realize until years later where the ingredients of a song came from. Discussing this with a few friends of mine, we decided to make “unveiling” mix tapes for each other — tapes that would reveal the original songs we had, knowingly or unknowingly at the time, been “inspired by.” (“Inspired by” is sometimes known as “illegal infringement of copyright,” depending whether or not you're in a court of law!) I already knew some of the songs I would have to put on my own “unveiling” tape; I was well aware that certain songs I'd written had been “inspired by” (since I'm not in court) bits of other people's songs.
Going through my music collection seeking songs for the mix tape I kept discovering examples I hadn't considered; I was taken aback by just how much of a rip-off artist I really was. But there they were, plain as day, song after song I had copied in one way or another. Perhaps I wasn't an original songwriter after all but a lousy cover act, hoping my Frankenstein's Monster reassembled cover versions would not be noticeable.
It's true that in my defense I can say that my most successful unconscious rip-off method seems to be to combine songs from various eras and genres, throwing people off the scent. An example of this: In retrospect I can see that “If You Shoot The Head You Kill The Ghoul,” my 1998 zombie tribute, and still one of my most requested live songs, is basically a mix of the horror-movie-meets-garage-rock lyric aesthetic of late-'70's Roky Erikson set to a chord progression I'd gotten from a Leadbelly song — all wrapped up in the Clash's “English Civil War.” Time and again I realized how uncreative my supposedly creative songs were.
Dylan would need a whole 20-disc box set to unveil his source materials.
Does this stop my songs from being good? Certainly some people seem to like them; I've been making my living with my music for seven years and there's even a Jeff Lewis Message Board that somebody made where people (well, a few people, bless ‘em) discuss every scrap of everything I do. Would my fans like the songs less if I sent them all “unveiling” mix tapes? If I write a song today that I think is great but suddenly realize it's a bit similar to that Exuma song I was listening to yesterday, should I scrap it and start from scratch? Or course not. If the greatest songwriters made unveiling tapes, they'd all be revealed as crooks in the first degree; Dylan would need a whole 20-disc box set to unveil his source materials. As they say, “talent borrows, genius steals.”
In fact it is great fun to try to pry apart the musical and lyrical inspirations and underpinnings of all the great songs, or better yet to stumble upon what is obviously an immediate genetic predecessor of an “original” song that you love. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Velvet Underground's immortal classic “Heroin” bears lyrical traces of their contemporary Village performer Dave Van Ronk's rendition of “Willie the Weeper,” concerning an opium addict who dreams of being a sailor on the ocean deep, just as Lou Reed's heroin user wishes he'd sailed the darkened sea (Van Ronk's recording would have been widely available in New York in 1965 via the Verve label, which the Velvets soon signed to). Am I right? Who cares, it's fun to guess! Van Ronk himself was only reinterpreting a song that had gone through many variations over decades, a song which also spawned a huge rip-off hit in Cab Calloway's 1931 recording of “Minnie the Moocher.”
None of this takes into account that songs can also get their genetic material from movies, books, poems, even paintings. As a comic book artist and comic reader, I know that some of my songs owe big aesthetic debts to comics like Peepshow and Eightball. Years ago I never realized that my favorite Woody Guthrie song, “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” and my favorite Scott Walker song, “The Seventh Seal,” are both merely rhyming re-tellings of the entire plots of movies Woody and Scott had just watched. They didn't even have the decency to put “Movie Spoiler Alert!” warnings on the albums (Oh well, no point in watching “The Grapes of Wrath” now I guess).
Thus so many of us snobby “real” artists are just cover artists in disguise, taking various devious steps to confuse our listeners into praising our “songwriting.” Perhaps what I do should be called “song-composting,” “song-mulching,” “song-smoothie-ing,” something like that. Or you could just call it “ripping off” and take me to court. I'd probably lose.