About how many things can you say, “I have been obsessed with that since I was a child?” I think some things are just inborn and they follow you around throughout your life. For me, one of these things has always been “this song sounds like that song.” I remember being fascinated by the George Harrison My Sweet Lord/He’s So Fine case as a little kid and just about any other music plagiarism case I came across. I just find it freaky and strange when two songs sound remarkably alike. By a stroke of luck, when I grew up and ended up in the music business, I sat for ten years in an office next to the one of the legal clearance person, who had the job of both clearing our artists’ samples (those are the pieces of other songs that an artist will deliberately build his/her song upon) and reaching out to the violators of our copyrights. What I found from sitting there is that the legal department counted on the honesty of the artist in reporting whose work the song was based on… to a degree. But then the clearance person would sit and listen to all the songs and try to figure it out. if she couldn’t, the song was sent to a musicologist. So there was always a lot of repeating of passages of loud music and a lot of me jumping up and running next door to say, “this sounds just like Paranoid Android!” and so forth. Since it wasn’t my job, I found it great fun.
Today is my mother’s fifth yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death, and as usual, I like to impart a lesson from her. My mother was something of a Led Zeppelin fan. These days, it isn’t unusual to say, “my mother is a Led Zeppelin fan” because mothers today had the chance of growing up in the late 60′s or in the 70′s or 80′s. My mother grew up in the 40′s and 50′s and liked classical music. And Led Zeppelin. She was proud of the fact that she liked something hip with the young people and once corrected a student who mixed up Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in a picture. She told that story all the time; she loved that she was able to do that.
But she wasn’t really a metal or hard rock fan. She liked the Middle Eastern melodies and she liked Robert Plant’s lyrics. In fact, she started to build a lesson plan around Stairway to Heaven but never finished it, which is too bad, because that would have been this post. But it’s OK because I still have a something to say about what she taught me and have it relate to Led Zeppelin. You may have heard (and if you know me, you definitely have heard) that Jimmy Page is finally being sued by Jake Holmes over the song Dazed and Confused. Now, I should first say that I have always loved Zeppelin and that Dazed and Confused has always been one of my favorites of their songs. I liked LZ so much that I went to see The Firm in concert in the mid-80′s just so I could say I had seen Jimmy Page on stage. Wow, was he…. in concert. So you can imagine my dismay when in the age of the Internet I found that LZ had “borrowed” many of their songs from others, including lots of poor Folk and Blues musicians.
Several of them have sued and won and now appear on the credits of LZ’s songs. But I simply can’t begin to describe the chutzpah of taking someone’s music or lyrics, basing your song on it, and then simply putting your own name as the sole credit. And I think the most egregious example of this is the Jake Holmes one. Jake Holmes was a folk singer in the 60′s (and later a jingle writer – he came up with the “I’m A Pepper” and “Be All You Can Be” commercials) and when you listen to his version of Dazed and Confused, which came out a few years earlier, it’s clear that the LZ version is simply a copy with new lyrics, a different arrangement, and some instrumental additions. Further, he was the opening act for Jimmy Page’s previous band, the Yardbirds, who proceeded to do a cover of Dazed and Confused live with Jake Holmes’ original lyrics. Awkward! I am not sure why it took Holmes so long to sue. He has expressed bitterness and dismay over the years in interviews and said he attempted to contact Page to no avail. I hope he comes forward and explains but in the meantime, I am cheering for him.
Many people say that this was something artists of the 60′s did all the time: reference roots music in their songs. “Variations on a theme,” if you will. Not to mention, as Kohelet says in Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun. All songs kind of sound like some other song. But here’s the important part: since I knew Kohelet said that and I know where it comes from, I began my sentence with “as Kohelet says….” Luckily, I don’t owe Kohelet any royalties. But this is something my mother taught me and it comes from Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers” in the Mishnah. The maxim goes, “whoever says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” We learn this from the Megillah of Esther (you remember that one from Purim, I’m sure) where Queen Esther tells the King in the name of Mordechai, that traitors are plotting against him.
My mother never quoted anyone else without saying, “I have to say this b’shem omro [in the name of the one who said it].” It was hugely important to her that the original writer or speaker got credit. Writing papers every week as I do, I constantly have to be aware of this and I wish Led Zeppelin had been, too. Because it’s OK to base our work on that of others; that’s how our society has always functioned. You just have to say so and let the world know who said it first.
Title adapted from the Led Zeppelin version.
בזכות מרים נחמה בת הרב יצחק