Meera Nair

celebrating a parody, 49 years later

In Posts on April 5, 2016 at 8:00 pm

The inclusion in 2012, of education, in the categories qualifying for fair dealing, has received disproportionate attention, made up of as much umbrage as applause. Far more important additions made at the same time, parody and satire, have almost gone unnoticed. Their protection was long overdue.

The first case in Canada to address parody against a charge of copyright infringement was Ludlow Music Inc. v. Canint Music Corp (1967). The dispute centred on the song This Land Is Your Land, written by Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). Canadian songwriter Alec Somerville, of The Brothers In Law, crafted new lyrics to Guthrie’s tune and retitled the song as This Land Is Whose Land.

But distribution was short lived. In a case which began on 6 April 1967 and ended on 10 April 1967, Somerville’s creation was declared as infringing upon the copyright of Woody Guthrie’s work. Jackett P. of the Exchequer Court of Canada granted an injunction restraining further sales of the album.

It must be noted that royalties were offered for use of the tune of Guthrie’s creation, under the premise that there were two copyrights at issue: (1) the copyright of the tune and (2) the copyright of the lyrics. While Somerville relied on Guthrie’s tune, Somerville’s lyrics were entirely his own creation. However, that offer was rejected and Jackett P. decided that both tune and lyrics are encircled by a song’s copyright.

Ironically, the tune was hardly Guthrie’s alone. Nick Spitzer of NPR writes:

Guthrie had a keen ear for the recordings of Virginia’s Carter Family, and he was not afraid to borrow. A 1930 gospel recording, “When the World’s on Fire,” sung by the Carters, must have provided the tune for what would become “This Land Is Your Land.”

In Ramblin Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2004), biographer Ed Cray further traces the tune to the southern gospel hymn Oh my loving brother. But this too is hardly surprising. Creative effort necessarily relies, consciously or not, on borrowed aspects of earlier works–creativity is always a collaborative undertaking. Skillful borrowing is the very essence of parody as it must capture the distinctiveness of the original creation and the creator.

An essay published in The Spectator on 20 May 1853, makes this point forcefully:

Every line ought to make us say, that is pure Tennyson or pure Browning, as the case may be; though the notion of the poem as a whole being connected with Tennyson’s or Browning’s name, should be an instant cause of laughter. … The parodist, then, to be successful, must have the most delicate sense of literary form and the fullest sympathy of comprehension for the work of those he parodies, as well as a true sense of humour and a special dexterity in the use of words and phrases.

That capacity, to invoke an original, to have a fullest sympathy of comprehension of the parodied work, as well as to couple humour with dexterity when crafting a new work, might have been written with Somerville in mind. Just as Guthrie’s work was in reaction to the  syrupy nature of Irving Berlin’s creation God Bless America, Somerville provided a more accurate and irreverent view of Canadian history. His variation on Guthrie’s song was expressly intended for release in 1967, the year of Canada’s centenary. (The album carrying the song was titled Exposé 67.)

Yet that fact likely added to the problem; the dispute was not settled on musicology alone. In 1959, Ludlow Music Inc. had licensed Guthrie’s work for adaptation and distribution in Canada, via revisions prepared and performed by The Travellers. The rights for this authorized Canadian version were held by Ludlow Music Inc. and the song was to play a prominent part in the centennial celebrations of 1967:

This song is a patriotic song and has been widely distributed in schools throughout Canada. The song will again be published in 1967 by the Centennial Commission in the songbook “Young Canada Sings — “Le Jeune Canada Chante”, 10,000 copies of the songbook will be distributed throughout Canada. Attached … is a copy of a letter from The Centennial Commission to Ludlow Music, Incorporated requesting permission to use the song “This Land is Your Land”. Ludlow Music, Inc., has consented to such use in both 1966 and 1967 (para. 11).

Ludlow Music Inc., unimpressed with Somerville’s work, sought to protect the innocence of the Canadian public:

… the use of words which are in bad taste and insulting to the Canadian public with the music of the composition “This Land is Your Land” will cause incalculable damage to the Plaintiff and destroy the meaning and acceptance of the song in the minds of the Canadian public (para. 12).

It is difficult to assess Canadian sensibilities of 49 years ago, but likely we are more resilient today. Canadians may judge for themselves, the merits of This Land Is Whose Land.

 

Update July 30, 2017

Alec Somerville has re-recorded This Land is Whose Land? and shares his thoughts about the events of 50 years ago. It is heartwarming and poignant; “Woody Guthrie was one of my heroes… he wrote the truth.”  Mr. Somerville provides a rare first-person account of Canada and music in the earlier 20th century, and reminds us of the necessity of borrowing to creativity.

 

  1. I am Alec Somerville, now 87yrs old and still picking and singing, and writing a bit. My original intention, when I wrote ‘This Land is Whose Land’ was brought about by hearing ‘This Land is Your Land -Canadian Version’ which I likened to General Motors(Canada) Limited…I know Ludlow were not impressed, why would they be? I knew that Woody’s melody reliedon McGranahan/P Bliss ‘sacred song’ or human, ‘My Redeemer’ go ahead and play it on the Internet… I deny that my words were in ‘bad taste’ Iwrote a lot of satire and tried to stay within the 1960’s boundaries of ‘taste’ Lastly, my songs were not anti-American they were pro-Canadian…
    I thank you for Celebrating a Parody, 49 years on… and the YouTube response (not put onthere by me) indicate vindication, eh?
    Ludlow Music can sit behind their desks and do that banker-type fingertip thingy. I also know that if I had been able to talk with Woody, it might have been OK, but he was seriously ill. I would have reminded him what he did with Alec McDaid’s Spanish Civil War Song – Jarama.

  2. Mr. Somerville – Thank you very much for the comment. You and your colleagues in song ought to be declared as national treasures. Vindication is indeed yours to enjoy.
    with very best wishes,
    Meera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s