Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Folk" Music, "Intellectual Property," and Bob Dylan

I'm a huge fan of Bob Dylan, and don't begrudge him one red cent of his wealth. Net worth: Probably around $800 million after the recent sale of his songwriting catalog for, allegedly, north of $300 million.

That sale did, however, start me thinking for the nth time about the relationship between "folk music" and the statist anti-concept of "intellectual property."

Trying to define "folk music" is complicated (here's the Wikipedia article on the subject), and virtually anything is contestable, but I think there's a strong case against copyright in folk music even if one accepts the idea of copyright at all. Folk is supposedly "the people's music," music that spreads and mutates through oral tradition, with no "owner" as such.

Woody Guthrie, Dylan's early idol/model/mentor, expressed a clear view on the subject (a view his publisher doesn't share):

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 ourn, 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.

Dylan's first album consisted mostly of his own arrangements of traditional folk songs, and his breakout (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)  freely co-opts tunes, themes, and lyrics from older folk songs ("Girl from the North Country" is clearly based on "Scarborough Fair" and "Bob Dylan's Dream" on "Lady Franklin's Lament;" "Talkin' World War III Blues" is a gloss on Guthrie's "talkin' blues" style; "Corrina Corrina" is a mashup of a 1928 Mississippi Sheiks tune with some Robert Johnson lyrics; "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" is an 1890s folk ditty; and "I Shall Be Free" is a re-write of a Lead Belly / Guthrie recording).

For several years -- until he went electric and scandalized the Newport Folk Festival -- Dylan wasn't just a folkie, he was the top dog folkie. He didn't make folk music big, but he made it much, much bigger ... and it made him, period.

Like I said, I'm happy that Dylan is coming up on billionaire status (and I hope he tours through my neck of the woods at least once more so I can pay to see him live a second time).

But, having made his fat stacks of cash, I wish he'd taken a cue from Guthrie and put at least some of his stuff (the "folk" stuff, say everything before Bringin' It All Back Home) in the public domain when he got ready dispose of his "intellectual property" catalog.

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